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HELENA - The armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon, with calls by Ammon Bundy and his followers to turn federal land over to local and private control, has renewed a contentious debate played out in the last Montana Legislature and across the West.

Catalyzed by the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, several Montana-based conservation organizations, including the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Wilderness Association, took aim at supporters of transferring federal lands to state control. The legislative transfer movement and anti-government militia movement displayed in Oregon share a common ideology, the conservation groups say.

“It is one thing to advocate for your agenda in the democratic process, it is quite another to invade public lands, hold a local community hostage, and make threats of armed violence,” Dave Chadwick, MWF executive director, wrote. “Proponents of the public land transfer can’t stick their heads in the sand and pretend like their rhetoric isn’t fueling this criminal behavior.”

“Welcome to the dark periphery of the lands transfer movement, a movement that demonizes federal land management agencies, stokes fear and anger throughout the West, and gives ideological and rhetorical support to a well-armed cadre of militia members and other anti-government extremists, some of whom are now occupying Malheur,” wrote Ted Brewer, MWA communications director.

Montana’s leading transfer proponent, Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, believes that linking the legislative and anti-government movements is not a fair assertion.

“I think the protest in Oregon is in response to frustrations prevalent all throughout the Western states with federal lands, but their action is quite a different course of action than what I am doing through the constitutional process so that there can be a much stronger local voice,” she said.

Fielder sponsored a pair of bills last session related to federal land transfer. One would have prohibited the state from selling transferred lands and the second prohibited the federal government from selling land. Neither was voted out of committee.

Another bill by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, created a task force to study the feasibility of federal land transfer. Gov. Steve Bullock later vetoed the legislation after White amended it to remove transfer language in favor of a general federal land study.

The Oregon occupation came as area ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond, who claim long-running conflicts and harassment by the Bureau of Land Management, returned to prison on arson convictions for setting fires that burned federal land. Hammond supporters have criticized the prosecution as heavy handed for trying them under a domestic terrorism law.

On her Facebook page, Fielder recently suggested that the Hammonds should be pardoned in an effort to end the occupation peacefully. When asked what she thinks should happen to those occupying Malheur, Fielder reiterated that efforts should be taken to diffuse the situation.

“No one should be thrown in jail, and I really don’t know, but hope cooler heads can prevail,” she said.

The attention surrounding the Malheur occupation could have both positive and negative effects on future legislative efforts, Fielder said.

“It has successfully brought an important issue to the forefront -- that these ranchers were tried as terrorists for setting a backfire that was no different than what the federal government says is good land management,” she said.

Fielder has long been critical of federal land management, particularly in places like her district, which has seen a steep drop in timber jobs. While a potentially dangerous situation like the one in Oregon could occur in Montana, Fielder says one of her goals is ensuring the transfer debate remains a civil process.

“I’m afraid we’ll see more of what’s happening in Oregon unless people can be more engaged in the decisions that impact their lives,” she said. “When it comes to federal land management, what the majority of people want is better recreation access and environmental health and not a federal land service that leaves these lands untended.”

Fielder believes federal land agencies are systematically dysfunctional and unaccountable to the local communities they impact. Environmental interests have gone to great lengths to stifle the transfer debate, with many of those attacks personal in nature, she contends.

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“The proponents of increased federal control have tried to suppress and dirty us who favor local control,” Fielder said. “They smear good people participating in a legitimate government process, and that started the day I filed for office.”

Rep. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, introduced a resolution during the last session opposing federal land transfer. The resolution was voted down in committee, but Lieser feels that public sentiment in Montana is largely against pursuing a transfer.

Many transfer opponents argue that federal lands belong to all Americans, and that the state of Montana could never afford to manage the lands, leading to an inevitable sell-off into private hands.

“My impression at least for Montana is that there is not a majority appetite for pursuing it,” he said. “It had the opportunity to be tested, and it just never got any traction.”

The Oregon occupation is fairly narrow and small, but highly vocal, Lieser said, and he does believe it shares an ideology with the transfer movement.

“I think it does definitely tie into the national or western U.S. movement in transferring federal lands to the state,” he said. “The legislative efforts are undoubtedly in my mind connected to this sentiment some have that they’re not getting the results on the ground they’d like to see.”

Montana has been creative in collaborating with federal agencies through efforts such as hiring a liaison to work with the Forest Service, Lieser said. Those efforts should continue, along with federal initiatives to better fund firefighting and expedite environmental analysis for needed timber projects, he believes.

Lieser agreed with Fielder that a situation similar to Oregon’s could easily occur in Montana.

“In certain segments of our state -- impoverished communities dependent on the commodities historically provided by federal lands -- I do think there is a great deal of frustration for not getting access,” he said. “As a career Forest Service employee, I’m sympathetic and think there are opportunities to make improvements, but taking over a facility by armed individuals is not the solution.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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