Hunters, anglers protest public land transfer

Hundreds of hunters and anglers took to the steps of the Capitol Saturday, Sept. 27, to protest the proposed legislation transferring federal lands in Montana to the state's control.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Montana conservation groups opposing the transfer of federal lands to state management are having their credentials questioned because of it, as well as being labeled “radical environmentalists” by some.

But the groups, including the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wilderness Association, say they’re more than happy to talk about what they do and who supports them financially.

“Like a lot of organizations, we accept funding from recognized philanthropic institutions that support our agenda of public access and conservation,” says Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “And none of it’s a secret.”

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, a proponent of transferring most federal lands in Montana to state management, has called her opponents “anti-access groups” and said in an email last week they’re “preying on unsuspecting sportsmen and other Montanans to further their agenda of locking us out while claiming to advocate for public access.”

The website, linked to a Washington, D.C., political consultant funded by oil-and-gas interests, also says some of the groups are supported by “radical environmentalists,” pointing to their funding sources.

According to its recent tax forms, MWF has a $330,000 budget, funded by member dues and donations, many of which are from nonprofit foundations. It’s been around since 1936.

Chadwick says groups supporting MWF over the years -- the Cinnabar Foundation, the Wyss Foundation and the Wilburforce Foundation -- are well-established, well-known groups that support conservation efforts.

He also notes that his group doesn’t claim its opponents aren’t “real sportsmen” or don’t love the outdoors.

“I won’t do that to them, because it’s dishonest,” he says. “We have differences on land-management policies, but that’s the democratic process. …

“We’ve fought this (land-transfer) issue because it’s terrible public policy and it endangers Montana’s outdoor heritage and landscape.”

However, the groups aren’t immune from engaging in their own hyperbole.

In flyers for a Monday rally in Helena against the federal land-transfer, the groups say the idea is backed by “out-of-state charlatans and extremist think tanks” and being carried out by “a radical group of legislators (who) want to evict us from our public lands.”

The Montana Wilderness Association, established in 1958, has a $1.5 million annual budget, according to its tax records, and assets of $4 million.

Its 2014 annual report lists its financial supporters, including many of the same foundations that support the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Clayton Elliott, state policy director and lobbyist for MWA, says while the group advocates for wilderness areas, where motorized access isn’t allowed, it isn’t trying to “lock people out at all.”

“We are a big-tent organization, whose members share a common value for the wild, quiet places that make this state what it is,” he says.

Fielder has called them hypocrites, because last week the groups opposed her bill that would prohibit any sale of federal lands transferred to the state. She also says they are using “fear and smear tactics” by claiming that transferring the lands would lead to a state sell-off of the lands.

Elliott says the groups believe Montana can’t afford management of 25 million federal acres, and would be forced to reduce the acreage.

He says MWA prefers collaborative efforts on forest management, like those leading led to the 2014 Farm Bill designating 5 million acres for logging projects in Montana.

“It’s short-sighted to lob these attacks at groups like MWA, rather than doing what we should be doing, (and not) advocating for crazy ideas like public-land transfer,” Elliott says.

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