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“There are no losers to what we are going to propose,” said Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton, a founding member of American Lands Council.

“Let me be really clear about this,” he said as he explained why he has taken a leadership role in compelling Congress to transfer federal lands to the states. “We are not against anybody. We are for managing the resources so we don’t actually burn our forests to the ground, destroy our watersheds, or kill millions of animals in the process. We are for not putting more pollution into the environment – than all our industrial processes combined – because of mismanagement and the wildfires that are occurring. We are for having some family sustaining jobs that come as we manage the natural resources and provide a benefit not only for the animals and the environment, but for people as well. We are for being energy independent as a nation, and as states. We are for being financially independent as a nation, as a state, as counties, and private citizens.”

ALC was formed two years ago by Heaton and a number of county commissioners and state legislators in Utah and Nevada to protect public access, provide better environmental health, and restore economic productivity on federally managed public lands. Today, their effort has attracted support from elected officials in every western state as the idea of shifting from federal to state-based public land management is increasingly viewed as the only way to ensure public lands are managed with greater care than we see coming from Washington, D.C., these days.

All the western states are feeling the pain of decades of declining federal stewardship. For some, the turning point occurred during the government “shutdown” last October when Congress didn’t want to fund Obamacare and President Obama responded by deeming all of our nation’s public lands “non-essential.”

I don’t think you would ever see a Montana governor shut down Montana’s public lands and treasured places like that. His career would be over because public lands matter to Montanans. But Washington, D.C., got away with it.

During Montana’s legislative study of federal land management this past year, we identified the most serious problems on federal lands. Chief among them are continuous reductions in public access, rapidly declining forest health, extreme wildfire fuel buildup, lack of economic productivity and lack of accountability from Washington, D.C.

Although our study was supposed to consider all lawful options to correct the problems, some Democrat committee members would not allow discussion on the subject of transferring federal lands to the state. While our bipartisan committee heard some testimony on the issue, we were never really allowed to give this subject the due diligence it deserves. Naysayers further suppressed the conversation by attempting to convince everyone Montanans would foolishly sell all the land if we were put in charge.

However, in closing remarks of our final legislative interim meeting, we had a breakthrough when a Democrat senator pointed out that safeguards could be put in place to ensure transferred federal lands remain in public status. He suggested that perhaps Montana could proceed slowly, by acquiring 1 percent of the federal land in our state each year for 100 years. Sage advice. Eventually we began to see bipartisan agreement that transferring control of federal lands to the state is possible if handled correctly.

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That breakthrough was preceded by testimony from Martin Goldney, chief negotiator for the government of the Northwest Territories, who described how and why Canada recently transferred control of federal lands to his smaller, more nimble territorial government. “When decisions are made by people closer to the subject matter, you tend to have better decisions,” Goldney remarked.

Here in America, if we endeavor to work constructively across party lines, we too can achieve a win-win arrangement, responsive to local people and financially beneficial to all parties. If leaders and citizens of Montana work together in an earnest, bipartisan fashion to create a thoughtful plan, there need not be any losers. Our people, environment, and state and national economies will benefit from improved public land management.

For more info, please sign in and leave your comments at jenniferfielder.us and visit americanlandscouncil.org.

Sen Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, represents Senate District 7 in the Montana Legislature.

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