Looking Ahead to the 2021 Legislative Session
We're pushing to make historic progress for wild places, and we'll need your support
With the 2020 election fading, with much kicking and screaming, into the distance, it’s time to dig into what the state-level results could mean for Montana’s public lands.
There’s no need to sugarcoat it: it was not a great election for the Treasure State’s public lands.
Up and down the ballot, many conservation champions lost their races to candidates who have demonstrated or indicated hostility to critical state-level conservation efforts like securing public lands funding, protecting public access, and fighting against public land transfer. A public lands champion fell short in the governor’s race; several key public lands advocates lost their seats in the Montana State Legislature; and candidates with checkered public-lands pasts won all of the offices that comprise the State Land Board.
In the governor’s race, Rep. Greg Gianforte defeated Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Governor-elect Gianforte has a long history of taking unpopular public-lands positions, exemplified by his 2018 attempt to strip protections from over 800,000 acres of Montana’s wildest public lands and his well-documented opposition to Montana’s landmark stream access law.
During Gianforte’s tenure as governor, we’ll watch him closely and hold him accountable if he fails to respect the overwhelming bipartisan support for protecting our public lands and access rights - which he promised to do throughout his campaign.
Unfortunately, many proven public lands supporters on both sides of the aisle lost their reelection bids. While we’re disappointed in this outcome, we’re confident that there are still numerous pathways to meaningful conservation successes in both the Montana House and Senate. We’ve been building relationships with legislators for years and have demonstrated that there is a broad appetite for meaningful public lands progress on both sides of the aisle, and we’ll continue to pursue new relationships and innovative strategies to protect the wildlands, habitat, and access that Montanans love and depend on.
The Montana Land Board has been called “the most important public lands governing body you’ve never heard of.” The Land Board makes critical decisions about acquiring new state lands, and it’s made up of five of the most powerful elected officials in the state: the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the state auditor, and the superintendent of public instruction.
Unfortunately, no proven public lands champions won the races for these positions, and many of the officials who’ll serve on the Land Board have expressed opposition to acquiring and protecting new state lands. This highlights the importance of building strong public support for the purchase of new state lands to protect wildlands, wildlife habitat, and public access and head off any attempts to recklessly prioritize the industrialization and development of state lands.
While this new political landscape won’t make our work any easier, there is a silver lining: the majority of candidates who won their races campaigned as public lands champions.
This is clear evidence that we’ve made supporting public lands an essential political issue in Montana. If a candidate wants to be seen as representing Montana values, advocating for the conservation and the protection of public lands is pretty much non-negotiable. Now, it’s our job to leverage those campaign-trail promises into real action. There is, of course, a big difference between a candidate’s campaign rhetoric and the actions they take while in office, and we’ll make sure to engage public lands supporters to hold officials accountable to Montnans and stick to the promises they made on the campaign trail.
Our relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle will also be more important than ever. We’ve been building and reinforcing these relationships for years, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to build bipartisan majorities to support key public lands and conservation legislation. Because of your efforts, we’ve successfully passed public lands legislation under difficult legislative circumstances many times before, and I have no doubt that we’ll do the same this time around.
Despite the political headwinds that we anticipate, we’re ready to pursue an ambitious plan of defending existing public lands and programs and pursuing new opportunities.
Broadly, we’re thinking about four buckets of legislative work.
1. Securing Public Lands Funding
Funding issues are often difficult, and it’s likely that public lands funding will be even more hotly contested given the budgetary constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Governor-elect Gianforte has also repeatedly expressed his desire to cut state spending.
We recognize the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 will complicate budget discussions, and we’ll continue to build support and demonstrate the critical need for public lands funding ahead of and during the legislative session. Given that most legislators have expressed support for public lands, we’re optimistic that funding for key public lands and conservation programs will be a priority during the session.
2. Protecting and Expanding Public Access
Access to our public lands is one of the keystones of our outdoor way of life. During the session, we’ll work with legislators to protect existing access and secure new access to public lands and waters across the state. We know that human-powered access is a priority across Montana, and we’re committed to ensuring that hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, and other public-lands users can continue to enjoy Montana’s incredible array of wildlands.
3. Stopping Any and All Attempts at Land Transfer
Despite Montanans’ overwhelming and repeated rejection of land-transfer efforts, we expect transfer to rear its head again during the 2021 session. We’ll continue to build strong bipartisan relationships to combat these unpopular efforts before they gain momentum, and to make it clear to legislators yet again that transferring federal public lands into state or private ownership is a non-starter.
4. Acquiring and Conserving State Lands
State land conservation will remain a critical tool to help protect and connect public lands across Montana. There are many noteworthy opportunities for the state to acquire and conserve new lands for wildlife and recreation, and those opportunities will require funding and the support of the Land Board, which must approve all new acquisitions. Governor-elect Gianforte has also stated his opposition to acquiring new state lands.
Strong bipartisan support for public lands funding and acquisition and maintenance will go a long way towards making progress on state lands issues, and we’re confident that Montanans will make it clear to their elected officials that they strongly support the continued acquisition and protection of high-quality state lands.
We’ll provide more detail about our priorities and opportunities in the coming weeks and months. I’m proud to have you on our team as we head into the 2021 session, and I’m looking forward to making continued progress toward protecting the wild public lands that make Montana so special.
State Policy Director
Noah develops state-level policies to protect and enhance our public lands, waters, wildlife, and access to outdoor recreation. He works with elected officials and partners to advance conservation priorities at the state legislature. He enjoys rafting, fly fishing, backcountry skiing, hiking, and road trips with his wife and two dogs.