When the Montana Republican Party voted last June to support the transfer of federal lands to state ownership, it catalyzed a debate that carried through November’s election.
Proponents and many opponents of a transfer argued that the state outperforms the federal government in management of public lands, and that the wood products industry needs more access to national forests for timber and other natural resource development. But simply proposing such a major shift brought vocal opposition from liberals to many moderate conservatives fearful that the transfer would lead to a sell-off of public lands.
Leading the charge for the transfer was Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who called the resolution, “Thoughtful, filled with fact and the belief that Montanans can do a lot better than the federal government managing our lands.”
Fielder chaired a working group on the Environmental Quality Council, which meets between legislative sessions. When the working group closed public comment on its draft report to the Legislature, it included a recommendation that the state only pursue a land transfer after exhausting all other solutions — a compromise between Democrats and Republicans on the council.
A collaboration by the Independent Record, Missoulian and Billings Gazette delved into the transfer debate in a three-part series that ran Labor Day Weekend. The series analyzed the political, recreational, agricultural and financial impacts if a transfer were to occur.
Democrats and some Republicans condemned the plan in the series, while it had its supporters as well.
Candidates from the state to federal levels reported that the topic was hot on the minds of voters.
“There are a lot of bad ideas that go around and this is one of them,” Democratic House candidate John Lewis said. “Virtually nobody on my travels thinks this is a good idea, and it’s because our public lands are such a big part of Montana.”
His opponent, now Rep.-elect Ryan Zinke, also expressed his concerns.
“I’m not there yet — I’ve never seen a path forward on it that we can get there where it matters to people in the short term,” he said. “I’m absolutely opposed to selling, but I do think we should force, if necessary, federal policy to return to a much better balance.”
Shortly after the series, the EQC pulled the last resort transfer recommendation from its report at Fielder’s request, but stopped short of recommending against a transfer.
As the debate continued, on Sept. 27, nearly 300 hunters, anglers and politicians converged on the state Capitol in a rainy protest of the transfer. They carried the mantra that the state could never afford the lands with such a small population, and they would inevitably have to be sold to the highest bidder.
“I want you all to close your eyes and think of your favorite public land,” said Land Tawnee, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, at the start of the rally. “Now think of it with a no trespassing sign on it.”
While reporters and voters continued to ask questions of candidates leading up to the election, coverage of the issue has largely quieted.
Fielder has continued to work with the American Lands Council, a national group promoting the transfer idea to western states. Her work has spurred some speculation that the issue could come back when the Legislature meets next month, but Montanans will just have to wait and see.