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The Montana Wood Products Association warned legislators on Friday that trying to take control of federal lands would return the state to the “timber wars” of the 1980s and '90s.

“This issue is fraught with way too many questions than answers,” MWPA executive director Julia Altemus said. “The timber industry does not have time to deal with that. It muddies the waters, and it’s a distraction from what we need to be focusing on.”

Altemus said the policy statement came in response to a slate of bills working through the 2015 Legislature to study or commit the state to manage or own national forests and other federal property.

While the Wood Products Association decries the steep decline in access to timber on federal lands over the years, its board argues that state control wouldn’t help.

“Our concern is (that) any proposal to transfer federal property or 'timberland' to state ownership or management could act as a distraction to national efforts and not provide the timely progress needed,” the policy statement read. “Such an action would not only catapult the timber industry back into the 'timber wars' of past decades, but it also does not address or resolve the root of the problems we are currently facing with litigation and over-regulatory policies. Regardless of who holds the deeds to the land, we must first address, change, and fix the hurdles to active management.”

Timber harvest on federal lands has fallen by 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to calculations by the Wood Products Association.

While the loss of mills and jobs has led to frustration with federal land management, the organization’s board said it couldn’t presently support state takeover of federal land.

Altemus said measures such as the federal farm bill’s “Priority Landscapes” policy that asked governors to nominate federal timberlands for expedited management were more likely to be productive than a protracted fight over land ownership.

“We’d rather have help to pass congressionally mandated policy reform that would help the timber industry and also address some of the lands the conservation community would like to see preserved as well,” Altemus said. “Continuing with the mantra of ‘give it back to the states’ is taking a step backwards. The people who are opposed to or frightened about that would go back to positions we’ve worked for years to overcome. Falling back to fearful positions is not helpful at all.”

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The Montana Wood Products position mirrors results from last week’s Colorado College nonpartisan poll that found 58 percent of Montanans thought federal lands belonged to everyone in the nation, with 49 percent saying they felt strongly that way.

Those who thought of public lands as state places belonging to the people of Montana totaled 35 percent, with 27 percent considering that a "strongly held opinion.”

State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, has led much of the campaign to gain state control of federal lands.

Her bill on further study of the issue had a committee hearing last week, and Altemus said she expected further legislation to be presented next week. Fielder did not return requests for comment on the MWPA policy or the poll results.

Opponents of the federal takeover movement have planned a Helena rally on Monday. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers co-chairman Ben Long said he found common cause with the Wood Products Association.

“It demonstrates just how radical and bad an idea this is,” Long said on Friday. “People from the timber industry, hunting and fishing communities and all walks of life value our national forests as they are. We should be focusing on real solutions that benefit real Montana communities, not this ideologically driven nonsense.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.