This summer the Montana Republican Party touched a nerve when it passed a platform resolution calling for the transfer of federal lands to the state. Critics of the idea subsequently raised questions about Montana’s ability to assume responsibility for these lands and pay for their management. And some have alleged the transfer effort is simply a ruse that will end with these public lands being sold to the highest bidder.
But then last week, after months of studying the issue, state legislators on the Environmental Quality Council voted
14-2 to strip a recommendation supporting the transfer concept from their final report.
At first blush, the lopsided vote appears to be a solid bipartisan defeat of a controversial idea.
But opponents of transferring America’s public lands to individual states shouldn’t celebrate just yet, because the effort is far from dead in Montana. A closer look at the council’s work reveals that, despite the headline-grabbing vote, there is every reason to think the transfer plan will be back on the table when the new legislative session convenes in January.
First, earlier in the most recent EQC meeting, another vote was taken that would have explicitly directed the Legislature not to pursue the land transfer. That measure failed on an 8-8 tie. Taken together, the two votes mean that the council chose to remain silent on the question of transferring federal lands, effectively punting the issue back to the full Legislature.
Second, the content of the EQC report reveals a deep bias toward a narrow set of federal land management goals and a strong motivation to press forward on transferring federal land.
This bias is evident throughout the report, but especially in the survey of county commissioners that forms the basis of some of the report’s conclusions. The survey was either poorly constructed or intentionally designed to generate a predetermined set of results. County commissioners, for instance, “were asked to describe their most significant concerns with federal land management.” Questions of this sort clearly encourage responses that are critical in nature.
Additionally, nearly all of the questions posed to county commissioners focused narrowly on motorized access to public land, wildfire and timber harvest. To be sure, these are important issues that deserve consideration. But the repeated emphasis on these themes calls attention to the absence of a wide variety of other land management considerations.
For example, Montana is home to nine threatened or endangered species, and their survival is critical to the maintenance of a balanced ecosystem containing the full suite of species encountered by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago. Yet the survey only contained two dubious questions on endangered species. One asked whether federal policies for endangered species are “adversely impacting private land owners, businesses, industries, or citizens.” The other was wrapped up in another question about wildfire. The actual survival of the species seems to have been, at best, an afterthought.
Another example is tourism. According to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 2013 was a banner year for non-resident travel to Montana. Altogether, tourists spent $3.5 billion, an increase of 13 percent over the previous year. Survey after survey shows that these travelers come to view wildlife and enjoy Montana’s world-famous landscapes. And yet, this important issue is ignored by the survey.
These flaws clearly indicate that the EQC report falls well short of best practices for conducting survey research. Regardless of whether this failure was simply a matter of poor design or a concerted effort to solicit negative opinions on federal land management, the survey was flawed and its purported findings offer no meaningful insights on the topic. It does, however, suggest the ease with which this important debate could be led astray.
Montana is blessed to play host to more than
25 million acres of public lands that are the birthright of all Americans. While improving federal management will always be an important goal, it’s important to consider the full range of issues at stake. Looking ahead to the upcoming legislative session, Montanans would be wise to exercise caution around the topic of federal land management. The transfer idea is far from dead, and the arguments being advanced to justify it require serious scrutiny.
Robert Saldin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana.