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HAMILTON – The Ravalli County commissioners opted Monday not to immediately embrace a resolution formally supporting the federal government’s ownership of about 70 percent of the land in the county.

That decision followed a two-hour morning meeting that attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the Ravalli County Courthouse.

The meeting was called by local residents worried about the movement by some state and local governments to attempt a takeover of federal lands within their borders.

A Utah state representative will speak Wednesday in Hamilton on his state’s move to force the federal government to relinquish control of federal lands there.

County Commissioner Suzy Foss told Monday’s crowd the meetings with Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory were meant to be purely educational and were paid for by private monies.

Ivory will speak at the Eagles Lodge, 125 N. Second St. in Hamilton, at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.

In a widely spread Internet post announcing Ivory’s visit, Foss wrote “the transfer of public lands, as contracted in our state’s Enabling Act is the only way that is big enough, 100 percent constitutionally solid, and a workable solution to our public land multiple-use issues.”

The bulk of the 21 people who offered public comment Monday morning asked the commission to steer clear of any movement that would attempt to force the federal government to turn over management of federal lands to the state and counties.

Joseph Thompson told the commission he had found plenty of reasons to disagree with his Bitterroot Valley neighbors over a variety of topics in his 40 years in the county.

“I’ve never had a disagreement with anyone in the valley about the existence of public lands and that we should have access to those lands,” he said. “I think everyone in the valley would agree to that.”

He presented the commission with a 26-page petition supporting the status quo of land ownership.

Russ Lawrence of Hamilton told the commission in the 23 years that he owned a downtown business, he couldn’t count the number of people who walked through his door after being drawn to the area by the huge expanse of public lands.

“It’s money in the bank,” he said. “It creates good jobs right here.”

Former Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull said in his 36-year career with the agency, he saw this same topic come up numerous times.

Bull said it would be a challenge for the county or the state to find the kind of money that’s required to manage federal lands.

The Bitterroot Forest had a $10 million operating budget while he was supervisor, but that number was dwarfed by the costs of fighting large fires. In 2000, the cost neared $80 million on the Bitterroot Forest alone.

“Where would Ravalli County come up with that kind of cash?” Bull said.

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But State Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, urged the commission to support any move to force the federal government to turn management over to the state.

Ballance said the voice of Montana’s relatively small population is drowned out by more populous regions on making management decisions on federal lands.

Theresa Manzella, a candidate for state representative from Darby, echoed Ballance’s views, saying Montana has lagged economically following a downturn in timber and ranching industries.

Manzella said the state does a better job of managing its timberlands than the federal government. Manzella said she was very concerned about the way fire is being managed on national forest lands.

Doug Soren said his family moved to the Bitterroot in 1928 in part to escape the Depression. They came here, he said, because they knew that everything they needed – hunting, fishing and fuel – could be found on the federal lands that were open to everyone.

“If a person was willing to work for it, they could get what they needed to get by,” he said.

Soren said he worries that if the efforts to move federal lands to the state bear fruit, the land could fall into the hands of people that don’t have local residents’ best interests at heart.

“I believe people could lose access to that land,” he said. “It’s happened in a lot of other places.”

County Commissioner Greg Chilcott told the crowd that the commission is not focused at all on taking ownership of the land or selling it off either.

“Whoever raises that issue is making it up,” Chilcott said. “This is not about class warfare. It’s about land management.”

Not that many years ago, Chilcott said the U.S. Forest Service was one of the only agencies that had a positive cash flow. Now, because of decisions made mostly in the political arena, he said the agency is hemorrhaging cash.

Chilcott said the commission is open to listen to any ideas on how that situation can be rectified.

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Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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