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recreating in the forest

Brent Bernard peers over Goat Flats in the Pintler range last summer. Opponents of a federal land transfer say Montana could never afford to manage the lands, and would have to sell. “We cherish our public lands,” said Gov. Steve Bullock. “The last thing we ever want to do is have those lands lost,”

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-day special report on proposals to transfer federal lands to state ownership. Today, we look at the finances involved in such a takeover. What would it take?

Determining the cost to the state of Montana to take over management of roughly 25 million acres of federal land within its borders is no easy task, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts such a deal at close to half a billion dollars.

“There’s a whole new sector of land management that would be needed to manage public lands,” said John Grassy, information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “We’re being asked to project how we would staff and program an additional 25 million acres. It’s something we’ve never done before.”

Despite the difficulties, the DNRC is still trying to come up with some figures, possibly by this fall.

Gov. Steve Bullock has made it clear that he does not endorse a takeover of federal lands in Montana, calling such public property the birthright of state residents. But the Montana Republican Party in June endorsed such a move, including it as one of the planks of its platform.

The GOP resolution states, among other things, that such a takeover would benefit Montana residents by allowing a larger timber harvest and clearing forests of fuels that are now burning in historically large wildland fires – thereby creating jobs and reducing air pollution; increase access to public lands, especially for motorized users; and give local governments a greater say in land management in their counties.

In the wake of the GOP move, Democrats in an interim legislative committee last month pushed for the alteration of a draft report detailing greater cooperation between state and federal agencies to read that a takeover of federal lands would be a “last resort.”

Although a detailed accounting may be difficult to acquire, there are some figures that can help describe the workload, costs and benefits to the state if it were to manage federal lands.

Montana is comprised of 94.1 million acres, about 29 percent of which is federally owned. The two largest federal landowners are the Forest Service, with 17 million acres mostly in western Montana, and the Bureau of Land Management, with

8 million acres, much of it in eastern Montana.

The state of Utah, which has been leading the federal land takeover charge in the West, has excluded tribal lands, national parks and wilderness areas from its proposed takeover. Given that Montana has about 3.4 million acres of designated wilderness, then the amount of federal land the state might lay claim to is about 21.6 million acres. The BLM also manages about 37.8 million subsurface acres for mineral, oil and gas extraction.

The DNRC oversees management of 5.1 million acres, so in acreage alone if the DNRC were to take on the responsibility of Forest Service and BLM land, its workload would increase fourfold.

***

In 2012, Montana received $99 million from the federal government for fees such as mineral royalties ($47 million), Payment in Lieu of Taxes ($26 million) and Secure Rural Schools funding ($20 million), according to a report by Joe Kolman, legislative environmental policy analyst. Almost half of that $99.1 million went to the “state government, 40 percent to counties, 6 percent to schools and the rest to resource advisory councils and grazing districts.”

In 2013, the BLM reported revenue of about $80 million from the sale of its mineral, oil and gas assets in Montana alone. In the same year, the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas office received $67 million in funding. With about 95 percent of the office’s surface acres in Montana and another 80 percent in subsurface acreage, a rough average would put the budget for Montana alone at around $59 million. That figure includes salaries for Montana BLM personnel, which is an estimated

$22 million for 440 full-timers and 195 part-timers. Some of those jobs are in rural areas, making the workers some of the highest paid professionals in small communities.

“It’s definitely a complex story,” said Brad Purdy, information officer for the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas office.

Forest Service timber sales in Montana generated $3.9 million in 2012 and $4.1 million in 2013, according to the agency. On top of that it also received $1.3 million in recreation fees in 2012 and about $1.3 million in 2013. Add the income figures for those years together and you get $5.2 million and $5.4 million.

For Montana alone, the Forest Service spent about $179 million in 2013 on discretionary spending for projects, salaries and transportation, according to an accounting by the Region 1 office. So its budget is more than double that of the BLM in Montana.

***

One of the largest concerns about state takeover of federal lands in Western states is the cost of fighting wildland fires. Last year in a relatively quiet fire season that saw only 12,300 state acres burn, the state of Montana spent about $13 million on firefighting. That compares to the Forest Service expenditure of about $66 million for firefighting in 2013 and the BLM’s $19 million. The Forest Service figure doesn’t include fire prevention work, which would add another

$32 million.

For 2013 in Montana the fire tab was around

$98 million, or $130 million if fire prevention work is included.

In the busier fire year of 2012, however, more than 1.2 million acres across the state burned with suppression costing the state $56 million, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Forest Service spent

$58 million on fire suppression and the BLM another $29 million.

So for 2012 in Montana, firefighting cost a total of about $143 million. Earlier, more destructive fire years have been even more expensive.

“According to some really rough estimates our average fire suppression costs are between $17 and $23 million a year,” or about $20 million, said Bob Harrington, state forester for DNRC.

He said the agency estimates federal firefighting costs at about five times as much as the state, so on average about $100 million a year.

“There’s all kinds of assumptions that go into that,” he said. “It’s a back of the napkin estimate.”

***

Federal land takeover proponents argue that wildland fires have only increased as timber harvests have decreased, leading to a buildup of fuel. More logging would mean fewer fires, they reason. But that argument ignores a reduction in rain and snowfall and a lengthening of the burning season in Western states, not to mention that some of the largest fires have burned in eastern Montana, where there are fewer marketable timber resources on public land.

It’s also estimated that firefighting costs will continue to grow as more homes are built close to or within forested areas, according to an analysis by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics. The group predicts in Montana alone firefighting costs could average between $51 million and $79 million just in fires that threaten homes. With inflation, that figure could run as high as $124 million by 2025, Headwaters Economics predicts.

Harrington noted that tree, brush and grass removal around homes to lessen fire danger can prevent houses from burning in normal wildland fires. But when high winds, low humidity and high temperatures all align, “there’s little you can do to stop” such fires, he said.

***

So from these scattered figures, can there be a rough accounting of the costs and benefits to Montana from assuming ownership of some of the federal lands within its borders?

“It’s very difficult to get your hands around it in a reputable way,” said Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics.

Mehl said his organization’s economists haven’t attempted such an accounting because incomes and costs for state and federal organizations are so fluid every year. Other states, like Idaho and Nevada that have looked into repossession, have turned to the Congressional Research Service to break out the numbers. But even these reports have “big caveats,” Mehl said.

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Let’s say every year was like 2013 – which it never will be – then we can assume that on the negative side Montana would lose $99 million in revenue from the federal government. Montana would spend another

$98 million in firefighting. So the state has seen a cost/loss of $297 million.

That figure doesn’t include the $25 million that the BLM had in its Montana budget for the year, which will also disappear, and the Forest Service’s budget of

$179 million, for a total of another $204 million. Add the two figures together and there’s a realized deficit of about

$501 million – half a billion dollars.

This also doesn’t include all of those federal workers who would be out of a job, move to another state or retire – a revenue loss that’s nearly impossible to calculate. It doesn’t factor the cost of employing additional staff and resources necessary to manage the new state lands.

On the plus side, if the state assumed the BLM’s mineral, oil and gas resources, that could pump in almost

$80 million, although such commodity prices are extremely volatile. Let’s say the state could increase its timber sale revenue on federal lands to match that on state lands, so a jump from around

$4 million to $9 million. Let’s multiply that by five, since the Forest Service and BLM have five times as much land as the state, and bump that figure up to $45 million. Supposedly, such an increase would also provide more jobs for sawyers, truck drivers and lumber yards.

Adding up state forestry income, BLM minerals and a projected increased timber harvest on other federal lands could boost the income to $134 million. That leaves a deficit of about

$367 million.

Calculations that show such a deficit feed into a fear that many Montanans have expressed: The state would have to seek other sources of revenue, such as the sale of public property, to fund the increased cost of managing the lands.

Everyone is stumbling around, trying to find something accurate,” Mehl said, but for now, there is no such accounting.

“The more you look at it, the more complicated it gets,” said the DNRC’s Harrington. “That’s why this administration is putting every effort into how do we make the current system work.

“We haven’t given up on the existing model yet.”

Coming Tuesday: How would a state takeover of federal lands in Montana affect recreation and public access?

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