In the last couple of months, Montanans have been party to anti-government militia groups using our open spaces to stage stunts aimed at riling up the nation’s extreme right wing. The latest Oath Keepers shenanigans in Lincoln—where the armed militia group is “guarding” and blocking a mine on public lands, illustrates perfectly the ideological backdrop of an increasingly influential and insidious movement to give away our incredible public lands to the state.
While legislation to this effect was defeated in Helena this spring, we haven’t heard the last from land transfer advocates or the extreme company they keep. A new report by the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities exposes the increasing sway these extremists have over Western legislators like Montana’s own Sen. Jennifer Fielder (recently re-elected vice-chair of the state GOP) and Rep. Kerry White.
The report links the activities of 14 lawmakers in nine Western states, including Fielder and White, who championed five public land takeover bills in the most recent legislative session. According to the report, Fielder is a member of the Sanders Natural Resource Council, which is run by members of the Militia of Montana. SNRC founder John Trochmann is known to have white supremacist leanings, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report details the overlap Fielder and White’s policy agenda has with extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, Council of Conservative Citizens, and Constitutional Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association.
We can’t afford to ignore this trend as we move into a year of many important elections. In nine of the 11 Western states that saw land takeover legislation in 2015, bill sponsors had ties to extremist anti-government groups or ideologies, including those in the county supremacy movement. This strain of extremism is seeping out from the halls of state capitals like Helena and Boise and into the dialogue in Washington, D.C. High-profile politicians like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Lisa Murkowski (in her budget amendment backed by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines), support turning over millions of acres of national forest to the Western states. Lawmakers like these are out of touch with mainstream Montanans, who strongly believe that places like the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests belong to all Americans.
Here in Montana, most of us are inhaling reality every day, as Gov. Steve Bullock recently declared Montana to be in a state of emergency due to rampant wildfires. How on earth do advocates of turning public lands over to the state think Montana could afford to fight these fires on our own? We couldn’t, meaning either our taxes would go up or our public lands would be sold off to the highest bidder, eliminating our outdoor heritage. Not only is this idea impractical from a fiscal, policy and legal perspective, but it’s highly unpopular with Montanans who value access for sportsmen and -women.
A wholesale giveaway of American lands is one of the most far-reaching changes to public lands management that has ever been proposed. When legislation to this effect moves forward in Congress, Sens. Daines and Jon Tester and Rep. Ryan Zinke will face a choice: Do they stand with extremists like Cliven Bundy and the Oath Keepers, or do they stand with the majority of Montanans and all American people who know and embrace the exceptional values of our federal lands?