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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
May 01 2019

What We’re Watching During the 2019 Montana Legislature

The session is over, but you can relive all the action right here


This post is an introduction to our work and priorities during the 2019 legislative session. We’ll be updating it periodically with news and action alerts throughout the session, so be sure to check back for the the latest news and opportunities to take action as we track all the developments at the Montana Capitol. 

Update: April 25th, 2019

Sine die - it’s all over! The 2019 Montana Legislative Session has officially come to an end.

Take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back - it’s been a long session, there’s been a lot going on, and we couldn’t have made such a difference without your help.

Even though the session’s over, though, the work continues. Earlier today, the House passed SJ20, the bill that will establish a committee to formulate options for the future of seven Forest Service wilderness study areas (WSAs). This committee will provide a recommendation in advance of the 2021 session, which in turn will be reflected in a resolution during that session. That means that we have 18 months to make sure the views of our members are represented in that initial recommendation.

You can be certain that we’ll keep fighting to make sure that the future of our WSAs reflect the wishes of Montanans, and we’ll let you know when you can help in the process. 

In other news, we’re anticipating that Governor Bullock will publicly sign SB24 the week of May 13th. We’ll keep you posted. 

Again, thank you for all that you’ve done during the last three months. We’ve asked a lot - make phone calls, send emails, attend hearings, make more phone calls - and we’re incredibly grateful to have supporters like you helping us keep Montana wild. 


Update: April 16, 2019

SB24 has passed out of the Montana House of Representatives, and now it's heading to Governor Bullock's desk to become law! 

Thanks to your tireless phone calls, emails, and in-person testimony, we were able to secure badly needed sustainable long-term funding for Montana’s state parks, trails, and fishing access sites. It’s estimated that SB24 will generate an additional $2 million dollars every year for the maintenance and protection of these critical public lands, and while it isn’t the end of the road - these places are still facing a real funding shortage that needs to be addressed - it’s a big step in the right direction. 

We’d also like to thank Sen. Terry Gauthier for his leadership in sponsoring SB24 and his commitment to protecting our public lands and acknowledge the great work done by so many of our partners, especially the members of the Montana Trails Coalition.

Amazingly, SB24 is the first broad-based recreation bill to pass the Montana Legislature in the last several decades. This victory is proof that when we work together, we can make real progress towards securing the future of our public lands and protecting our outdoor heritage.


Update: April 10, 2019

The SB24 train keeps chugging along. On Tuesday, it passed out of the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee by an 11-7 vote. None of the bad amendments were approved, so now SB24 is off the House Appropriations committee, where we expect it to get a hearing later this week. Just three more votes to go before it reaches the governor’s desk!

In less-great news, Senators passed HB265, the bill that would require the Land Board to approve all Habitat Montana conservation easements. 

HB265 is a huge blow to public land access. It puts the fate of critical conservation easements in the hands of elected officials, rather than experienced agency personnel and private landowners. By creating additional and unnecessary red tape, it adds a high level of uncertainty for landowners that wish to put easements on their land. That will discourage landowners from participating in the Habitat Montana program, and make it more difficult to improve access to landlocked public lands.  

HB265 now heads to Governor Bullock’s desk. We’re advocating for him to veto the bill, and will post any updates here. 


Update: April 2nd, 2019

In more good news, SB24 had a hearing on Thursday. 25 proponents spoke in favor of the bill, while not a single person spoke against it. 

We’re feeling good about the outlook, but might have to take action to help SB24 move forward. Stay tuned to get all the latest.  

There’s also been a new bill introduced that you should know about. SJ20, introduced by Sen. Jeff Welborn (R-Billings), would require a committee of legislators to provide a “forum for stakeholders to formulate options” for the future of seven Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) totaling 660,000 acres - the West Pioneer, Blue Joint, Sapphire, Ten Lakes, Middle Fork Judith, Big Snowies, and Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn. 

MWA Executive Director Ben Gabriel testified at a hearing for SJ20 on Monday. You can read his testimony here. 

We oppose the bill as currently written, but support the creation of a process to engage Montanans in deciding the future of wilderness study areas. We are advocating for a number of significant amendments to ensure a fair and open process that makes a good-faith effort to engage all Montanans. 

SJ20, in its call for the state legislature to provide a forum for stakeholders to weigh in on our Wilderness Study Areas, creates a process for engaging Montanans in this conversation. We very much support this concept.

However, we made clear to the committee that in order for such a process to be successful:

The outcome must reflect the fact that our public lands are the backbone of our outdoor heritage, a source of clean drinking water, and critical wildlife habitat.

  • Any process must engage a diversity of voices, including conservation interests.
  • Any process must be open to the public, include a broad spectrum of stakeholders, and be fair and transparent.
  • Any process must respect current collaborative proposals and agency planning processes.

We will keep you updated on the progress of SJ20, and will certainly let you know if there are opportunities for grassroots action.


Update: March 22nd, 2019

Short update: we’re expecting that SB24, the state parks, trails, and fishing access sites bill, will receive a hearing in the House sometime next week. We’ll be monitoring it closely, and we’ll be sure to check back in to report on the results.  


Update: March 20th, 2019

Another step towards protecting our parks, trails, and fishing access sites! SB242, the bill that would scrap the state parks’ portion of the vehicle registration fee in favor of an optional $35 decal, had a hearing in the Senate Fish and Game Committee on Tuesday, March 19th. During the hearing, no one spoke in favor of the bill and several citizens - including a handful of MWA members and partners - spoke in opposition. The committee didn’t vote on the bill, but they’ll have to do so before April 1st, which is the deadline for revenue bills to move between the two chambers of the legislature.

Given the opposition to SB242 from citizens and legislators alike, we’re not expecting it to advance out of committee, but we’ll continue to monitor its progress and work with legislators to defend and support our public land infrastructure.

We’re also continuing to monitor HB265, which would require the Land Board to approve all Habitat Montana conservation easements, putting important decisions about conservation easements in the hands of elected officials rather than experienced FWP personnel. The Senate Fish and Game Committee held a hearing on HB265 last week, and we’re expecting the bill to advance out of that committee to the Senate floor.

Finally, we’re keeping a close eye on potential efforts to cripple the Habitat Montana program, and we’ll be ready to spring into action if more concrete threats present themselves.


Update: March 12th, 2019

Thanks in no small part to your emails, calls, letters to the editor, and in-person testimony, SB24 - the bill that would provide desperately needed funding for our state parks, trails, and fishing access sites - has passed through the Senate by a 33-16 vote!


Original Post

Since the 2019 Montana Legislature convened on January 7th, we have been working with legislators from both sides of the aisle to pass legislation to protect our wild and public lands for future generations. 

Importantly, we have also been doing this work with the support of public land advocates across the state - people like you. While you made the Rally for Public Lands on January 11th such a success, setting the tone for public land legislation this session, the bills introduced in the House and Senate have been, as expected, a mixed bag.

With your help, we have made real progress towards defeating a bill that would eliminate social science from the decision-making process at the department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; another that would have cut our State Parks by millions of dollars; and a bill that would give counties the authority to declare new roads on federal lands. We have much work ahead of us to ensure that these bills are ultimately defeated, though, and your willingness to get involved and contact your legislators will be an essential part of that process.

Need proof? Already, your comments, emails, and phone calls have also helped us advance a bill that would raise critically needed funds for our state parks, public land trails, and fishing access sites.

There is a long legislative road ahead of us, though, and your continued action on behalf of our wild places will remain critical throughout the session. We’ll be sending out periodic action alerts via email and social media, and you can also follow committee hearings and floor votes and keep tabs on your legislator online. (Not sure who your legislators are? Find them here). 

Our Primary Legislative Priorities

1. Support SB24, a bill to increase funding for state parks, trails, and fishing access sites

It’s well beyond time to secure long-term sustainable funding for Montana’s state parks, trails, and fishing access sites. They are they arteries that connect Montana families to our public lands, and their existence is not guaranteed. Montana’s state parks are staring down a $22 million maintenance backlog, our boat ramps are crumbling, our trails are eroding away, and it is threatening our outdoor way of life.

We are supporting SB24, a bill introduced by Rep. Terry Gauthier (R-Helena), that would take steps to provide the funding our outdoor infrastructure so desperately needs. SB24 would increase the optional light vehicle registration fee from $6 to $9, generating an estimated $2 million for the parks, trails, and fishing sites that are so critical to our way of life. After an initial hearing during which SB24 garnered broad support from diverse interests and no opposition, the bill was tabled by the Senate Fish and Game Committee. It has since been blasted out of committee with strong bipartisan support and passed a second reading on the floor. Now, it faces a hearing in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, after which the bill could head back to the Senate floor for a 3rd reading before heading to the House.

There are two opposing bills that would decimate our parks, trails, and fishing access sites even further. SB102, which has been tabled, would change the $6 opt-in to a $25 opt-out, depriving State Parks of an estimated $2 million per year. SB242, which has a hearing in the Senate Fish and Game Committee on Feb. 26th, would eliminate the $6 fee in favor of a $35 windshield decal, resulting in the loss of an estimated $3.7 million and 11 jobs for State Parks.

You can show your support for our State Parks and trails by signing the open letter here. We will use this letter to demonstrate to legislators the strong and broad-based support for State Parks and outdoor recreation funding.

2. Defeat HB265, a bill that would cripple the Habitat Montana program

Habitat Montana is a program that uses a portion of out-of-state hunting license fees to protect critical wildlife habitat through voluntary conservation easements and land acquisition. HB265, introduced by Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), would give the Land Board authority to approve or kill conservation easements funded through Habitat Montana.

The Montana Supreme Court has already ruled that Habitat Montana easement purchases do not require approval by Land Board. HB265 seeks to give that authority back to the Board, putting important decisions about conservation easements in the hands of elected officials rather than experienced FWP personnel and increasing unnecessary bureaucracy.

Note that in the case of Habitat Montana easements, the private landowner has already voluntarily agreed to work with FWP, and HB265 would interfere with decisions that should remain between landowners and agency personnel.

Unfortunately, this bill has passed a third reading in the House and moved over to the Senate where it will be heard sometime in the next few weeks in the Senate Fish and Game committee. Many Senators on that committee are likely to support HB265, and we’re expecting that we’ll have to call on members like you to take action to defeat this bill in the near future. 

3. Defeat HB207 and HB161 to maintain public input into public land management decisions

Taking away the public's right to have a say on the management of public land was a fatal flaw in the wilderness study area legislation that Senator Daines and Congressman Gianforte introduced last year. That disregard for public input has been echoed in the state legislature. 

While HB207 and HB161 address different issues, both make an effort to remove the public from the public lands decision making process. HB207, introduced by Rep. White, could give county commissioners the power to declare new roads on federal lands, removing the public from having a say in the management of lands that belong to all Americans by undermining agency planning processes based on public input. HB161, introduced by Rep. Brad Tschida (R-Lolo), would eliminate social science from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks decision-making process, limiting consideration regarding key issues to a very narrow set of stakeholders and essentially prohibiting agency personnel from taking public input into account.

Fortunately, thanks in no small part to your hard work, both SB207 and HB161 have been tabled, but we anticipate more efforts to bring these bills back to life or other bills to achieve the same ends. 

We will continue to monitor all of these bills, and we’ll keep you up to date and let you know if there’s a chance for you to take action. 

It’s also worth noting that there are still hundreds of unintroduced bills whose purpose is unknown because they have vague titles like “Generally revise public land access” or “Generally revise parks and recreation.” These bills have the potential to be dangerous, and we just have to wait and see the direction they end up taking. 

However, the transmittal deadline, which will provide some clarity, is just two weeks away. If, by then, a bill has not passed the chamber in which it was introduced, it is officially dead (with a few exceptions). If a bill has not been introduced by then, it cannot be introduced, and if a bill has been tabled, it cannot be brought back up.

We’ll track bills through transmittal and the end of the legislative session on May 1st, and we will share any opportunities for action via email (join our mailing list here, at the bottom of the page) and on Facebook. Your calls and emails are a vital part of encouraging legislators to support good bills and vote against bad ones, and we’re counting on you to help us preserve our wild heritage for future generations. 

- Kayje Booker, MWA policy and advocacy director

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