HELENA - Gov. Judy Martz decision to get involved in a lawsuit challenging a federal plan to set aside millions of acres of roadless forest land was made against the advice of Attorney General Mike McGrath.
The Democrat said Tuesday he told the Republican governor she was wrong in her criticism of the way the policy was developed and that the procedure in Montana did follow federal environmental laws regarding public participation.
"There were 15,000 people that commented on the roadless initiative," McGrath said. "There were public meetings all across the state. There were opportunities for people to participate in the rulemaking process."
Martz has asked a federal judge to let her have a formal role in a suit filed by Idaho over the roadless policy devised by the Clinton administration. That plan would make off limits to development about 60 million acres of roadless federal land nationwide, including 6.3 million acres in Montana.
McGrath said he does not support Martz's move and told her so.
"The main thrust of the Idaho suit was people did not have a chance to comment," he said. "The fact of the matter is that in Montana, they did."
The disagreement is almost identical as that between the previous governor and attorney general.
In February of last year, Republican Gov. Marc Racicot personally sided with Idaho in its suit over the objections of Democratic Attorney General Joe Mazurek.
Mary Jo Fox, communications director for Martz, said the governor based her decision to step into the suit on advice from Tommy Butler, chief attorney for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
"Although Governor Martz respects Attorney General McGrath's opinion on this and other issues, the decision remains the governor's alone to decide whether or not the Clinton roadless initiative will negatively impact Montana's management of its state trust lands," she said.
Much of Martz's argument for joining the Idaho case centered on the potential effect of the federal policy on access to state lands adjacent to or surrounded by affected forest land. Those possible repercussions demanded Martz take action, Fox said.
But a spokesman for the Montana Wilderness Association disputed that view.
Dyrck Van Hyning of Great Falls said regulations behind the roadless plan still allow road construction or reconstruction in certain circumstances, such as for preserving public health and safety, restoring natural resources, protecting existing rights, preventing environmental damage or use of mineral leases.
"There's plenty of federal rules in place where it won't be a problem if they have to go in for any reason," he said.