061513 Bass Creek logging pb.jpg

Logging operations are seen at the Bitterroot National Forest's Bass Creek Recreation Area in June 2013.

PERRY BACKUS/Ravalli Republic

HELENA – A study of federal land management problems in Montana roiled a legislative panel Wednesday, as some members said the report has a “hidden agenda” of transferring ownership of federal lands to the state.

“This state is not for sale,” said Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City. “This state cannot afford to assume ownership of federal lands. ... I think there are hidden agendas here. I’m just going to say it.”

McChesney and other Democratic members of the Environmental Quality Council said they wouldn’t support releasing the draft report, which they said is biased in favor of Republican views of public land management.

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, the sponsor of the bill that led to the report, noted it does not recommend transferring federal lands to state ownership or management.

“None of the recommended legislation would transfer (land), either,” she added. “We’re recommending to work cooperatively with the (federal) agencies to try to solve this problem.”

However, Fielder agreed to have the report re-edited and brought back to the council Thursday, for a possible vote that would ask for public comment on the report.

Ultimately, the report is supposed to recommend what the 2015 Legislature should do to address problems with federal land management in Montana.

Supporters of the report Wednesday said it’s meant as a “first step” toward more collaboration with federal land managers, to enable quicker decisions on activities such as logging, mining permits and road construction that will help local economies and improve forest health.

The draft report identified more than two dozen “risks and concerns,” most of which identified federal management as inadequate, cumbersome and adverse to local needs and economies.

Its five recommendations called for “reducing wildfire fuels” through logging, increasing access for “multiple use,” increasing “economic production” on federal lands, strengthening local involvement in management of the lands, and ensuring that laws favorable to state and local priorities are followed.

Yet Democratic members of the panel and others said the report and the discussion seem to be pointing toward support of transferring federal lands to state management.

They noted that the state Republican Party last month supported a platform plank calling for such a transfer, and that Fielder organized the appearance before the council of a Utah legislator and others promoting the transfer.

“To see (the transfer) become part of the Republican Party platform really has raised the governor’s level of concern with where this is going,” said Tim Baker, natural resources policy adviser for Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. “I just want to be really clear: The governor does not in any way support the transfer of (federal) public lands to the state.”

Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, said the group hasn’t taken a position on the idea, but has many questions about the financial aspect of transferring federal lands to the state.

“A major piece that is missing from the whole study is a financial analysis: What are the costs? What are the rewards?” he said. “I think that would be a very arduous undertaking in and of itself.”

Fielder said after the meeting the idea behind the report is to scrutinize how federal lands are being managed and identify what could be done differently to improve it.

Transferring management of the land to the state is just one option, she said, but one everyone seems to want to talk about it.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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