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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,”

An old political joke holds that where you stand depends on where you sit.

In the debate over who should control federal lands in Montana, some observers have noted a corollary: If you want a seat at the table, it helps to bring a chair.

“If you want the federal government to understand about your local customs, your schools, your weeds, your hunting, your industry, you have to have a plan documenting those things,” said Wally Congdon, a Powell County rancher and frequent consultant to county governments around the West. “Federal law states that federal land management must be consistent with local plans to the greatest extent possible. If you want to play the game, bring a team.”

The effort is neither simple nor cheap, according to Beaverhead County Commissioner Michael McGinley, who worked with Congdon a decade ago to develop his county’s growth planning resources. And it hasn’t given the county control over issues proposed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. But it has kept the county a player rather than a spectator in those federal decisions, he said.

“A lot of people think a federal land transfer is the best thing since sliced bread – just take the land from the Forest Service and all your problems are solved," McGinley said. “I don’t think that’s the best thing. I don’t think Montana has enough money. It’s better to ask for cooperating agency status.”

In June, the Montana Republican Party passed a platform resolution calling for state takeover of 25 million acres of federally controlled land.

But the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council recently considered a report on problems with federal land management in Montana that contained numerous “risks and concerns” about federal oversight, and recommendations for speeding up decisions on issues like logging, mining permits and road construction on public lands.

The federal government owns about 70 percent of Beaverhead County. That puts huge pressure on the county government, McGinley said, when federal programs like Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools don’t contribute their expected payments. In the case of the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, McGinley said Beaverhead County has only received $40,000 of $180,000 it’s owed this year.

“They’ve got 25 days left before the federal year’s over,” McGinley said. “Congress has got to appropriate money for SRS and PILT before the end of September. In Beaverhead, it totals up to about $2 million.”

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Money problems like that are common justification for proponents of federal land takeover. But more tangible issues, like whether a forest road gets maintained or how energy exploration and wilderness designations get decided, are what residents really care about, McGinley said.

“We have the resource use plan – that’s where it starts,” McGinley said. “That’s the document you use when you start talking with the federal agencies. And Beaverhead and Madison counties hired a resource use planner together. That way, when you have the meeting, somebody has to be there.”

And staying involved is crucial, especially for small counties with limited staff, according to Montana Association of Counties executive director Harold Blattie.

“Some counties have adopted resource plans, and they have the greatest effect if they’re included in a county growth policy,” Blattie said. “Some counties, specifically Sanders and Ravalli counties, have had voters repeal growth policies by referendum. So there isn’t a document that federal agencies need to coordinate around. It does put them at a bit of a disadvantage.”

A 2006 survey of county administrations found that about half of Montana’s counties had adopted growth plans, while most of the remainder had plans in development. Blattie said he didn’t have more current information on how many had completed their projects.

And that’s the best way to hold a strong position in talks with federal partners. In a 2010 letter to legislators, Legislative Services Division legal staff adviser Todd Everts stated if counties wanted to effectively play a role in federal environmental reviews and planning, “a statutorily authorized growth policy that comprehensively outlines the county’s land use and resource priorities is essential.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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