Estimates: State management of federal lands could cost Montana $500M

2014-09-01T06:30:00Z 2014-09-28T12:41:26Z Estimates: State management of federal lands could cost Montana $500MBy BRETT FRENCH Billings Gazette
September 01, 2014 6:30 am  • 

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-day special report on proposals to transfer federal lands to state ownership. Today, we look at the finances involved in such a takeover. What would it take?

Determining the cost to the state of Montana to take over management of roughly 25 million acres of federal land within its borders is no easy task, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts such a deal at close to half a billion dollars.

“There’s a whole new sector of land management that would be needed to manage public lands,” said John Grassy, information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “We’re being asked to project how we would staff and program an additional 25 million acres. It’s something we’ve never done before.”

Despite the difficulties, the DNRC is still trying to come up with some figures, possibly by this fall.

Gov. Steve Bullock has made it clear that he does not endorse a takeover of federal lands in Montana, calling such public property the birthright of state residents. But the Montana Republican Party in June endorsed such a move, including it as one of the planks of its platform.

The GOP resolution states, among other things, that such a takeover would benefit Montana residents by allowing a larger timber harvest and clearing forests of fuels that are now burning in historically large wildland fires – thereby creating jobs and reducing air pollution; increase access to public lands, especially for motorized users; and give local governments a greater say in land management in their counties.

In the wake of the GOP move, Democrats in an interim legislative committee last month pushed for the alteration of a draft report detailing greater cooperation between state and federal agencies to read that a takeover of federal lands would be a “last resort.”

Although a detailed accounting may be difficult to acquire, there are some figures that can help describe the workload, costs and benefits to the state if it were to manage federal lands.

Montana is comprised of 94.1 million acres, about 29 percent of which is federally owned. The two largest federal landowners are the Forest Service, with 17 million acres mostly in western Montana, and the Bureau of Land Management, with

8 million acres, much of it in eastern Montana.

The state of Utah, which has been leading the federal land takeover charge in the West, has excluded tribal lands, national parks and wilderness areas from its proposed takeover. Given that Montana has about 3.4 million acres of designated wilderness, then the amount of federal land the state might lay claim to is about 21.6 million acres. The BLM also manages about 37.8 million subsurface acres for mineral, oil and gas extraction.

The DNRC oversees management of 5.1 million acres, so in acreage alone if the DNRC were to take on the responsibility of Forest Service and BLM land, its workload would increase fourfold.


In 2012, Montana received $99 million from the federal government for fees such as mineral royalties ($47 million), Payment in Lieu of Taxes ($26 million) and Secure Rural Schools funding ($20 million), according to a report by Joe Kolman, legislative environmental policy analyst. Almost half of that $99.1 million went to the “state government, 40 percent to counties, 6 percent to schools and the rest to resource advisory councils and grazing districts.”

In 2013, the BLM reported revenue of about $80 million from the sale of its mineral, oil and gas assets in Montana alone. In the same year, the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas office received $67 million in funding. With about 95 percent of the office’s surface acres in Montana and another 80 percent in subsurface acreage, a rough average would put the budget for Montana alone at around $59 million. That figure includes salaries for Montana BLM personnel, which is an estimated

$22 million for 440 full-timers and 195 part-timers. Some of those jobs are in rural areas, making the workers some of the highest paid professionals in small communities.

“It’s definitely a complex story,” said Brad Purdy, information officer for the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas office.

Forest Service timber sales in Montana generated $3.9 million in 2012 and $4.1 million in 2013, according to the agency. On top of that it also received $1.3 million in recreation fees in 2012 and about $1.3 million in 2013. Add the income figures for those years together and you get $5.2 million and $5.4 million.

For Montana alone, the Forest Service spent about $179 million in 2013 on discretionary spending for projects, salaries and transportation, according to an accounting by the Region 1 office. So its budget is more than double that of the BLM in Montana.


One of the largest concerns about state takeover of federal lands in Western states is the cost of fighting wildland fires. Last year in a relatively quiet fire season that saw only 12,300 state acres burn, the state of Montana spent about $13 million on firefighting. That compares to the Forest Service expenditure of about $66 million for firefighting in 2013 and the BLM’s $19 million. The Forest Service figure doesn’t include fire prevention work, which would add another

$32 million.

For 2013 in Montana the fire tab was around

$98 million, or $130 million if fire prevention work is included.

In the busier fire year of 2012, however, more than 1.2 million acres across the state burned with suppression costing the state $56 million, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Forest Service spent

$58 million on fire suppression and the BLM another $29 million.

So for 2012 in Montana, firefighting cost a total of about $143 million. Earlier, more destructive fire years have been even more expensive.

“According to some really rough estimates our average fire suppression costs are between $17 and $23 million a year,” or about $20 million, said Bob Harrington, state forester for DNRC.

He said the agency estimates federal firefighting costs at about five times as much as the state, so on average about $100 million a year.

“There’s all kinds of assumptions that go into that,” he said. “It’s a back of the napkin estimate.”


Federal land takeover proponents argue that wildland fires have only increased as timber harvests have decreased, leading to a buildup of fuel. More logging would mean fewer fires, they reason. But that argument ignores a reduction in rain and snowfall and a lengthening of the burning season in Western states, not to mention that some of the largest fires have burned in eastern Montana, where there are fewer marketable timber resources on public land.

It’s also estimated that firefighting costs will continue to grow as more homes are built close to or within forested areas, according to an analysis by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics. The group predicts in Montana alone firefighting costs could average between $51 million and $79 million just in fires that threaten homes. With inflation, that figure could run as high as $124 million by 2025, Headwaters Economics predicts.

Harrington noted that tree, brush and grass removal around homes to lessen fire danger can prevent houses from burning in normal wildland fires. But when high winds, low humidity and high temperatures all align, “there’s little you can do to stop” such fires, he said.


So from these scattered figures, can there be a rough accounting of the costs and benefits to Montana from assuming ownership of some of the federal lands within its borders?

“It’s very difficult to get your hands around it in a reputable way,” said Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics.

Mehl said his organization’s economists haven’t attempted such an accounting because incomes and costs for state and federal organizations are so fluid every year. Other states, like Idaho and Nevada that have looked into repossession, have turned to the Congressional Research Service to break out the numbers. But even these reports have “big caveats,” Mehl said.

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Let’s say every year was like 2013 – which it never will be – then we can assume that on the negative side Montana would lose $99 million in revenue from the federal government. Montana would spend another

$98 million in firefighting. So the state has seen a cost/loss of $297 million.

That figure doesn’t include the $25 million that the BLM had in its Montana budget for the year, which will also disappear, and the Forest Service’s budget of

$179 million, for a total of another $204 million. Add the two figures together and there’s a realized deficit of about

$501 million – half a billion dollars.

This also doesn’t include all of those federal workers who would be out of a job, move to another state or retire – a revenue loss that’s nearly impossible to calculate. It doesn’t factor the cost of employing additional staff and resources necessary to manage the new state lands.

On the plus side, if the state assumed the BLM’s mineral, oil and gas resources, that could pump in almost

$80 million, although such commodity prices are extremely volatile. Let’s say the state could increase its timber sale revenue on federal lands to match that on state lands, so a jump from around

$4 million to $9 million. Let’s multiply that by five, since the Forest Service and BLM have five times as much land as the state, and bump that figure up to $45 million. Supposedly, such an increase would also provide more jobs for sawyers, truck drivers and lumber yards.

Adding up state forestry income, BLM minerals and a projected increased timber harvest on other federal lands could boost the income to $134 million. That leaves a deficit of about

$367 million.

Calculations that show such a deficit feed into a fear that many Montanans have expressed: The state would have to seek other sources of revenue, such as the sale of public property, to fund the increased cost of managing the lands.

Everyone is stumbling around, trying to find something accurate,” Mehl said, but for now, there is no such accounting.

“The more you look at it, the more complicated it gets,” said the DNRC’s Harrington. “That’s why this administration is putting every effort into how do we make the current system work.

“We haven’t given up on the existing model yet.”

Coming Tuesday: How would a state takeover of federal lands in Montana affect recreation and public access?

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(24) Comments

  1. Don't Care
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    Don't Care - September 01, 2014 6:46 pm
    Good god, I think Miss "I"m single because no one can stand to listen to me" has officially stopped taking her meds.

  2. Don't Care
    Report Abuse
    Don't Care - September 01, 2014 6:46 pm

    Shouldn;t you be out breaking LNT ethics by bush whacking across some wilderness packing out your fecal matter? Thanks for saving me from myself. You sound like some type bible thumper. It is really a poor way to get your point across. Although I kind of agree with you, it's attitudes like yours that that make me want to log and mine every square inch of out public lands. You are a very selfish person, "WE"??? Can I still be part of WE if I don;t agree with you? You truly are a piece of work.....
  3. bitterfitter45
    Report Abuse
    bitterfitter45 - September 01, 2014 5:04 pm
    Hell yes I wood . Before I would let idiots such as yourself manage any public lands . As a wise man once said , " Better to be thought of as a fool , then to open your mouth and remove all doubt " , as you have done many times Miss Perfect .
  4. Skinwalker
    Report Abuse
    Skinwalker - September 01, 2014 12:52 pm
    I think you are confusing her with the facts.
  5. D
    Report Abuse
    D - September 01, 2014 11:47 am
    It is only a perverted Republican pipe dream that the Fed land be turned completely over to the Montana. Have some say in the management? Maybe...
  6. D
    Report Abuse
    D - September 01, 2014 11:43 am
    "State Management" of public lands is a whole lot different than owning it outright, eh? Would be a good thing if the State could have a say in forest management on federal lands, which is what these Repubs seem to be going for in their misguided approach.
  7. Readneck
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    Readneck - September 01, 2014 11:00 am
    It won't cost us anything because the Republicans really just plan to give it to industry to manage (use up).
  8. Smilely
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    Smilely - September 01, 2014 10:52 am
    Only a fool would believe that the federal government and 350 million Americans would allow the State of Montana and its people take over the management of the federal public lands in Montana today. The federal government is the only ones capable of managing precious lands in Montana. Montana needs to be and is being saved from Montanans. These bills are going nowhere. They are a pipe dream. They are dead in the water. What these fools are forgetting is the federal lands in Montana today belong to ALL Americans and they are NOT for sale.
    In addition, do not be fool by these bills the FJRA or the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. If you are an advocate for wilderness these bills are the absolute worst thing that could happen. These bills not only would provide for the wholesale destruction of the vast majority of our Inventoried Roadless Areas but open up many more to motorized vehicles. Also these bills would open up areas to development and motorized vehicles that if left exactly the way they are today they would continue to enjoy many of the same protections as wilderness areas - as in no motorized vehicles. These bills would also terribly compromise the integrity of the wilderness areas we already have by opening up the Inventoried Roadless Areas that surround our wilderness areas acting as buffer zones.
    Just imagine what a disaster that would be with roads surrounding and up close to wilderness boundaries: sounds from logging operations right up against and surrounding the boundaries, and the same with ATVs, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and easier access for the masses of people who really want a more civilized, more comfortable, more convenient, and more easily accessible forest experience and this is exactly why wilderness was created in the first place to keep this type of user far from the last few remaining areas where people can go experience the complete opposite. The other advantage of leaving things right the way they are right now is most of these Inventoried Roadless Areas have no names on them and as soon as you put a name on them they will be over ran.
    The longer we take to decide on a travel plan for our national forests the better off for preservation, because in the future when open land is even scarcer the federal government will be more apt to designate them wilderness areas which they rightly deserve. Remember, and almost everyone has said it before, there are things in life more important than money; and having less than 5% of our total land mass in the U.S. road less are one of those things. Come on timber industry let us see some REAL innovation from you when it comes to TRULY sustainable logging so that the miserly 5% of the total land mass of the U.S. that includes wilderness areas, national parks and Inventoried Roadless Areas can be left in peace and quiet the way WE the people deserve. Go have at it – the other 95% of the land mass and stop trying to be so hard-headed.

  9. nonconfron
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    nonconfron - September 01, 2014 10:39 am
    Mz "Perfect", or whatever the heck you are:
    Germany's forests don't "burn u"p because they are sterile, dead/dying trees (needed to add biomass) and no rotting stuff on the ground, that contributes greatly to that biomass. It might do you well to learn even a small amount of forest/range ecology.

    And to the other extreme side of this argument:
    With continually lobbing law suits to block FS timber sales, you have created a stalemate, a stagnant condition, which in turn is adding to the feeding frenzy of take-over of all US citizen's public land.

    Keep it federal and let them do their work by, 1. putting an end to what many of us consider frivolous law suits, and 2. providing them with adequate budgets to do necessary work.
  10. Skinwalker
    Report Abuse
    Skinwalker - September 01, 2014 10:32 am
    I do not understand the "take over of Federal Lands" concept. These lands do not belong to Montana, they belong to all of the citizens of the U.S. Why would the U.S. give Montana these lands? Sell them to us maybe, but just transfer ownership? Do we have the money to buy this much timber producing acreage or do you conservatives just expect another government welfare deal where you pay nothing for the land and your wealthy masters get to put more money in the Caymans (without paying taxes of course) while they destroy the remaining hunting and fishing areas in the state. Please, give me a break.
  11. startingover
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    startingover - September 01, 2014 10:26 am
    Actually, yes. They do have forest fires in Germany.
  12. tinlizzie
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    tinlizzie - September 01, 2014 9:43 am
    Miss Perfect, I suggest you read your history books. The Federal Land is just that - FEDERAL LAND. We can't take it over for one thing and another thing we can't afford to take it over. Are you related to Mad Taxpayer or are you just going by a different name?
  13. Flathead
    Report Abuse
    Flathead - September 01, 2014 9:01 am
    This is clearly a land grab by the ultra rich who have absolutely perverted the GOP. Its impossible to take Miss Perfect's comments seriously when they are full of errors and hate. This person disregards basic math and replaces it with ignorance. Miss P needs to understand that public lands are what make this state the best state to live in. Sure we can make up the deficit by logging, but then what? It takes 20 to 30 years before trees are big enough to be harvested again. The Stoltze mill is laying off 8 to 10 employees and is forced to decrease production because it can't build roads to harvest timber on state lands, not federal lands.
  14. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - September 01, 2014 7:06 am
    What's this about wildfires now being historically large? How many acres burned in the fires of 1910?

    Annual acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S.

    1919 - 1929 - 26 million acres burned
    1930 - 1939 - 39 "
    1940 - 1949 - 27 "
    1950 - 1959 - 8 "
    1960 - 1969 - 4 "
    1970 - 1979 - 3 "
    1980 - 1989 - 4 "
    1990 - 1999 - 4 "
    2010 - 2013 - 6 "

    Nationally 52,053 fires occurred in 2012 - below the national 10-year average of 66,160 fires.
    9,009,248 acres burned in 2012 - compared to the national 10-year average of 7,011,102 acres.
    Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

    In 1930, over 50 million acres burned.
    From about 1956 to 2000, well under 10 million acres per year burned.

    2010 - 2013 about 6 million acres per year burned.
  15. Miss Perfect
    Report Abuse
    Miss Perfect - September 01, 2014 3:47 am
    No....Arlo little communist......."This land is not my land.......and it not you land either"

    This is Montana land. Much of it remains federal lands for ONE reason only........BRIBERY. And there are thousands of public parasites that get a piece of Uncle Sam's you no doubt.
  16. Miss Perfect
    Report Abuse
    Miss Perfect - September 01, 2014 3:44 am
    you wood
  17. Miss Perfect
    Report Abuse
    Miss Perfect - September 01, 2014 3:43 am
    Poorly written article full of absolute garbage.

    Let's take the phony accounting at face value.

    But, add back the following:

    Park Revenues (If parks are included)
    Oil, gas and mineral royalites (no more for the feds!).
    Increased responsible timber harvesting (big $$$,$$$,$$$)
    The elimination of hundreds of useless government terds floating on the gov't toilet.
    NO more strings from the EPA, BLM, USDA or other offices of Barack Obama!!!!!

    It's not hard to be a conservative.......just be reasonable, fiscally efficient and support yourself.
    Decreased Fire fighting costs (Due to proper forest dont see Germany's forests burning up now do you?)
  18. Al Coholic
    Report Abuse
    Al Coholic - September 01, 2014 3:37 am
    Thank you for this write-up Gadfly. You said it well, and have laid out all my fears. It is public land for public use, and by transferring it to the state from the federal government, the public is the one that suffers.
  19. Davy Crockett
    Report Abuse
    Davy Crockett - September 01, 2014 1:42 am
    Oil & gas revenues would go directly to the state. Timber sales would increase and there will e less lumber imported from Canada and China. Montana would be the winner financially. The naysayers will come up with all kinds of negative reasons. Reminds me of all the skeptics who told Edison he could not get electricity out of a battery. These people who oppose the state management of public lands would have us living in the Dark Ages.
  20. NoturAverageBear
    Report Abuse
    NoturAverageBear - August 31, 2014 11:10 pm
    $500 million, a drop in the ocean, for the 1%ers, which is the ultimate goal about all this state take over of federal public lands. 'Privatization', that is the ultimate goal of the "Wrecking Crew".

    The GOP complain that "big government" doesn't work, so they send incompetence to office to prove "big government" doesn't work. When they have proven that their incompetence has broken the governance, they will cry that only the 1%ers can save the country and everything must be privatized! --they are already doing this!

    Have fun playing the Royal Forests, tea puppets!
  21. Lynne McKay
    Report Abuse
    Lynne McKay - August 31, 2014 10:11 pm
    Don't forget our overseas friends. We could be taking along the government's debt.
  22. bitterfitter45
    Report Abuse
    bitterfitter45 - August 31, 2014 9:14 pm
    I agree with you Gadfly , these freaks and their strange wet dreams .
  23. wondering
    Report Abuse
    wondering - August 31, 2014 9:07 pm
    The forest service only sold $4 million in timber last year off all their land in Montana! No wonder the little towns are drying up in much of the western part of the state. And look at the money they spent on wages. Something has to change.
  24. Gadfly
    Report Abuse
    Gadfly - August 31, 2014 8:33 pm
    GOP, Tea Party Types Pushing for State Control of Public Lands
    Anything the republican party introduces or suggested should be considered absolutely asinine. When they try to round up their little thoughties they are dangerous. Federal .lands are not theirs to take over since federal land belongs to the people of the United States, not local regions or individual states. Such a proposal is going nowhere and is hot GOP air. The Tea Party types and state parochial, conservative legislatures are short on foresight, lack thinking depth, have wrong-headed ideas about just about anything they almost think about, are on a fact free diet, and it seems that they are so anti-federal government that they are purely destructive. It also seems likely that they serve secret interests. Many or most of our red state legislatures are such, and wannabe senator, Daines, is such. Transferring public land to state control would be a disaster and the end of most of such land. The land is USA public land not Montana only or Wyoming only public land. The state cannot even come close to preserving it, balancing the uses of it with contesting interests and preserve wildlife and preserve it for posterity and public access. It would soon all belong to extraction industries, ranchers, the super rich, developed and inaccessible.The states cannot afford it in any sense of the word. There is no interest if would serve except extraction industries and super rich and development interests. Those calling for would soon be shocked and decrying the results.
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