The 2021 Montana Legislature Begins
Our priorities and the best way YOU can get involved
Monday, Jan. 4 marked the beginning of the 2021 Montana Legislature.
As usual, public lands issues will be at the forefront of the session, and we have plenty of chances to make meaningful progress to defend the places we treasure. We’ll also have our work cut out for us in the effort to stop any attempts to undermine our wild places.
What You Can Do
Of course, this session will look different. While many legislators will still come to the Capitol, we won’t be asking our members to show up in person. Your voice will still be essential to holding lawmakers accountable to Montanans who love our wild places, though. There will be opportunities to testify virtually, and your voice will be a vital part of the movement to hold our officials accountable.
Sign up for State Legislative Action Team text alerts and we'll help you be the most effective advocate you can be during the session. We'll only text you when YOUR senator or representative is a key player, so you’ll only hear from me when YOUR voice will make the most impact.
Your voice is going to be critical. Many public lands supporters on both sides of the aisle lost their reelection bids last November, but there are still numerous pathways to meaningful conservation successes. We know there’s an 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.
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. There is, of course, a big difference between a candidate’s campaign rhetoric and the actions they take while in office, and now it’s our job to hold them to those promises.
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’ve successfully passed public lands legislation under difficult legislative circumstances many times before.
I have no doubt that we’ll do the same this time around.
We’re ready to pursue an ambitious plan of defending existing public lands and programs and pursuing new opportunities.
1. Securing Public Lands Funding
Public lands funding will be hotly contested this session, particularly given the economic impacts of Covid-19. Governor Gianforte and some members of his party have repeatedly expressed a desire to cut state spending. We’re optimistic that legislators who’ve expressed support for public lands will make securing and defending funding for key public lands and conservation programs a priority.
Our major funding priorities include:
- Habitat and Access. Habitat Montana is the premier state-level conservation and access tool. We’ll advocate for full funding, including increased funding from the recent passage of CI-118 and I-190. We will also work to ensure ample funding for programs like Block Management and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program.
- Agency Operations. We will advocate for proper staffing levels for state agencies that manage public lands (the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; and the Department of Environmental Quality) so they can meet their goals over the next biennium.
- Trail Maintenance. In 2019, MWA helped pass SB24, which created the Montana Trail Stewardship Grant program. This state-level program allows communities and organizations like MWA to fund trail stewardship programs. The Legislature must approve spending from this account for FWP to distribute grants.
- State Parks. In 2020, more people visited Montana State Parks than ever before. Unfortunately, Montana State Parks is facing upwards of $20 million in maintenance needs across the state. We’ll push the Legislature to address the need for increased maintenance funding for these critical parks.
2. Protecting and Expanding Public Access
Access to our public lands is one of the keystones of our outdoor way of life. 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 enjoy Montana’s incredible wildlands.
Our major access priorities include:
- Lower Yellowstone River Access and Improvement. MWA is a member of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition, a group of eastern Montana community leaders, business organizations, economic development experts, and non-profit conservation and recreation groups with the shared goal of improving public access along the Lower Yellowstone. By investing in the recreational infrastructure and public lands along the river east of Billings, we can boost the quality of life for communities along the river, improve public access, protect unique wildlife habitat, attract more visitors, and strengthen eastern Montana’s economy.
- Stopping attempts to undermine access rights and programs. Montana has some of the strongest public access laws and culture in the country, including the nation’s premier water access right. Additionally, programs like Habitat Montana allow the state to acquire fee title purchases of land and conservation easements which help open up huge swaths of landlocked public lands. We have already seen bill drafts that would cripple this program by unnecessarily politicizing these projects and harming landowner rights.
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.
State land conservation is a critical tool to 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 granted by the State Legislature and the support of the Land Board.
Strong bipartisan support for acquiring and maintaining state public lands is critical. 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.
Our top priorities this session include:
- Securing Public Access on Flathead Lake. We support the proposed acquisitions that would become Somers Beach State Park and Montebello Fishing Access Site (FAS). These acquisitions are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to improve access and protect critical wildlife habitat. The lake is a popular destination, and it stimulates considerable economic activity. Though Flathead Lake is highly popular, 89% of its shoreline is privately owned. The Legislature should consider additional public access opportunities, which can help maintain sustainable recreation opportunities.
The Somers Beach property would provide much-needed access on the north shore of the lake. If the state does not purchase it, the property could be closed to public access for generations. Protecting Somers Beach would also protect critical habitat for a wide range of wildlife.
Montebello FAS is a similarly outstanding opportunity to increase recreational access to Flathead Lake. This acquisition would alleviate overcrowding at other boat ramps at access sites on the lake, which sees over 40,000 angler days per year. It would also provide easier access to Wild Horse Island.
Inevitably, there will be opportunities and threats that we haven’t outlined here, so we’ll stay on our toes and make sure that we let you know whenever there’s a chance for you to take action on behalf of the wild public lands you love.
Remember, the best way to protect our quiet recreational access, wildlife habitat, wild state lands, and amazing trails is by joining our Legislative Action Team. Join today, and I’ll let you know every time there’s an opportunity to fight for wildlands.
State Policy Director
Noah works to develop state-level policies to protect and enhance our public lands, waters, wildlife, and access to outdoor recreation. He works with elected officials and partners as MWA’s lobbyist in order to advance conservation priorities at the state legislature. He enjoys rafting, fly fishing, backcountry skiing, hiking, and road trips with his wife and dogs.