Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction and candidate for Montana's lone U.S. House seat, outlines her public lands access and forest policy agenda Wednesday afternoon at Spring Meadow Lake State Park.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

HELENA – The battle for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat continued its focus on public land management Wednesday, as Democratic candidate Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau launched her public lands agenda and traded barbs with her opponent, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, over voting records.

Public lands and who should own and how to manage and fund them has become a central campaign issue between the term-limited Democrat and the first-term congressman. Both have campaigned as opponents to federal land transfer to state or private hands while portraying each other as taking disingenuous votes.

Juneau characterized herself at Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena as a champion of public lands and access.

“Public lands offer a promise to every hardworking Montana family that they can access the very best our state has to offer, not just for the wealthy and not just for the privileged,” she said.

Juneau rolled out the four priorities of her public land policy. She opposes wholesale transfer or sale of public lands. She supports legislation to put more people to work in Montana’s forests via support of collaboratively developed projects. She wants to cut red tape for companies obtaining recreation permits. And she wants to strengthen funding for land management, specifically for firefighting, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and addressing maintenance backlogs in parks and forests.

Juneau pointed to her role on the Land Board, voting for timber sales and to open access, as a track record of supporting practical policy that improves local economies.

“Instead of Washington, D.C., deciding what’s best for our land from a top down approach, we need to collaborate with communities to improve the health of our forests and put more people to work,” she said.

As Juneau touted her work on the Land Board, state Republicans and Zinke’s campaign hammered the Democrat for votes to sell state-owned lands and her depiction of Zinke’s public land record.

“Denise Juneau is absolutely a liar and a hypocrite on selling public lands,” Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said. “She is launching false attacks against Ryan Zinke, wrongly claiming he is selling land, but she has actually taken votes to sell public land. She made her position that there is no black and white on this issue but has personally voted to sell land.”

At issue is the state Land Banking Program. The program allows sale of state parcels with proceeds placed in a trust for the purchase of new state lands.

Juneau defended her votes as opening up new access while disposing of often land-locked state parcels. During her time on the board, DNRC recorded 37,000 acres of new access and $68.4 million in timber revenue creating more than 4,000 timber jobs, according to the campaign.

Wednesday’s news conference also follows Juneau and several conservation groups criticizing the congressman for his recent vote for H.R. 2316, a bill allowing the creation of appointed advisory committees to decide management of designated community demonstration forests. While the bill does not transfer ownership, critics still characterized Zinke as a flip-flopper on land transfer, saying management transfer was a new approach tantamount to ownership transfer.

A Billings Gazette story this week said Juneau “misses the mark” in connecting management transfer with ownership transfer. The article cited a fact check by Ballatopedia and the bill’s language in its conclusion.

Juneau did not reply to the Gazette’s request for comment, but was asked Wednesday whether she and the conservation groups were misleading on Zinke’s vote.

Juneau maintained that she stands with the conservation groups and that they only spoke to management.

“Congressman Zinke did take a bad vote on transferring management to politically appointed boards, taking millions of acres out of state public hands and putting it in a board that’s not accountable to the public,” she said.

It was Zinke’s votes and support for policies, Juneau said, that put public lands and management funding in jeopardy.

The campaign pointed to Zinke’s support of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2014 budget, which proposed selling lands to pay down the national debt.

Swift countered that Zinke supported the “framework” of the bill before he was elected, but did not say he’d vote for it. She emphasized several votes against federal land transfer that broke party lines as evidence that Zinke is unwavering in his public land support.

Many of the policies Juneau supports Zinke has already worked to pass, including wildfire funding reform and the funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Swift said.

“(Juneau) rolled out her public lands positions today and it included absolutely zero new ideas and she even included legislation Zinke has cosponsored and voted for in the House,” she said.

Swift did not answer a question about the League of Conservation Voters giving Zinke a 3 percent rating this year.

Juneau challenged Zinke’s record on LWCF Wednesday, saying that as he touted his votes that broke party lines in favor of LWCF, he recently voted for the House’s Interior Appropriation’s Bill, reducing funding by nearly $130 million next year.

“There’s a lot of talk coming out of our congressman that says he wants to permanently reauthorize (LWCF), but at the same time he’s taking votes to cut that funding … so it’s a hollow promise,” Juneau said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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