Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hands off My Land, Pilgrim

Public Land management has never been a walk in the park. Draconian budget cuts, disease, continuous lawsuits, wildfire, and the everyday disagreements that Americans have over how these lands that are owned by all of us are managed routinely make headlines not only in Montana, but across the West.

The latest fad from State Legislatures is to demand that the Federal Government turn over public land to the states so that they can increase short term economic development and reduce conservation regulations designed to ensure that multiple use actually means multiple use. Montana has been swept up in this resurgence of the old Sagebrush Rebellion.

During this last session, the Montana legislature, following the lead of states like Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, passed a resolution to look at federal land management, and while nobody is openly admitting it, taking the public out of our public lands.

Frustrated by litigation, the Endangered Species Act, lack of funding for land management agencies, drought, and wildfire and generally just upset that some lands exist without a road or well pad, some legislators believe that we need to assume control over the millions of acres of Federal Lands in Montana. While the rhetoric of “taking back our lands from the feds” plays into the libertarian streak we all have in Montana, transference of public lands to the state would have some very real, and very negative consequences for hunters, anglers and all who enjoy our great outdoors:

·         Camping: The state allows you to camp up to two days on State Trust Lands. That fight was hard won just a few short years ago. At one time, we couldn’t even camp on state land. Now, while restrictive in nature, we can finally camp on lands we pay taxes on. On Forest Service land, you can now camp up to 16 days in most areas, 14 days during the hunting season.

·         Fire: By transferring the lands from the Federal Government over to the State, the state would have to pay for the firefighting on those lands. In 2010, on the bitterroot National Forest alone, that was $80 million. In order to achieve the kind of money needed, taxes most likely would have to be raised on homeowners and quite possibly, our income taxes. It’s not much of reach to see the state of Montana spending billions of dollars in fighting fires, especially in the wildland-urban interface.

·         Weeds: As the climate changes and more invasive species like toadflax, spotted knapweed and other plants move in, choking out our native sedges, grasses and forbs, the cost to fight these plants skyrockets. Montana would have to pick up all of the costs of managing weeds. This price tag has yet to be determined, but there’s not one person who can sit back and think: “If only this field had more knapweed, then we’d have more elk.”

·         Short Term Gains that come from intensive oil and gas development and timber sales over long term profits that come from the sustainable management of public lands that leads to long seasons and increased wildlife abundance are touted as the best method of economic development: The State Trust Lands, so called because they are held in trust for the schools of Montana, are constitutionally mandated to garner the highest return for the state. That means often times that extractive uses are given priority over wildlife management, clean water and sensible extraction. While there is some debate as to how that economic model works for the long term, hunters know that often times, leased state ground can be unproductive when it comes to finding game on it if not managed properly. It’s also easier to close down state land to multiple use based on leasing conditions, crops, timing of livestock grazing, etc.

·         Increased cost to Livestock Producers: Currently, the BLM & US Forest Service charge $1.35 per Animal Unit Month (The volume of feed it takes to sustain a cow/calf pair). Current state rates for livestock grazing are approximately $8 per AUM. That’s a significant increase in operating costs for Montana’s livestock producers. It also could man the difference between a profitable year and one where the profit margin sinks to negative numbers, resulting in the subdivision of critical winter range. While it may seem odd for a hunting & angling blog to advocate for subsidized grazing, the truth is this: The impacts to wildlife by having public land grazers subdivide or sell off the family homestead to rich out-of-staters means less hunting opportunity for the average Montanan.

·         Logging: While logging state lands remains mostly profitable, the overriding talk has been how the state isn’t as tied to the lawsuits that plague a lot of timber sales. Unfortunately, this rhetoric isn’t entirely true. State Timber sales still hve to comply with the Endangered Species Act and other federal regulations related to clean air & water. They also have to go the MEPA (Montana Environmental Policy Act) process, which is less onerous than the National Environmental Policy Act. However, having the state administer these millions of acres would still grow state government exponentially as well not necessarily curb lawsuits.

·         Decreased Motorized Travel: State Trust lands are usually more restrictive in terms of allowing motorized travel than a lot of Forest Service lands. DNRC lands are generally off limits to motorized routes unless explicitly stated and even then, the public is cut out of the discussion unlike on Federal Lands, which have to go through public travel planning processes. The voice of the average hunter is lost in the mix when it comes to travel management on state lands. Lessees are given priority over hunters and anglers. It’s just how things work folks.

      In the end, when the twists and turns are explored, the real motivation comes out on these type of studies: Sell public land for short term gains. That’s unacceptable to a majority of Montanans. 

     Throughout the study, “expert” witnesses have been called by the committee to talk about why we need less public land or why the Federal Gov’t should give the states land held in trust for all people. This study committee has yet to ask for the opinions of the thousands of small business owners who rely on public lands, public land hunting, fishing and recreation or clean water for their livlihoods and jobs. It is unconscionable that a legislative committee hold a study and not invite the largest users of public lands to voice their opinion. When studies like this occur, it makes folks think that the outcome is pre-determined: Sell ‘em off, eliminate opportunity for the average Montanan and reduce the economic diversity of our state.

     The issue of public land management should be front and center. The debate, however, is not fair and balanced. It’s lop-sided and slanted to one philosophy, a philosophy that doesn’t stack up with public sentiment or our outdoor heritage. During the initial stages of the study, the Legislature asked for opinions from a select group of land managers & experts. They didn’t like what they heard, so now they’re excluding that voice from the debate.  University of Montana’s own Dr. Martin Nie – a respected author and professor whose work on public lands helps shape federal land policy had a very simple statement that should ring true for all of the Legislators and the clan of profiteers waiting to carve up our public lands: 

It is my professional opinion that the recent spate of resolutions and studies coming from western
states will end their journey in the same Cul-de sac as the sagebrush rebellion. And like the rebellion
before it, the ultimate impact of today’s protests will be more symbolic than substantive in nature.34
Symbolism has its political virtues, but governing and managing federal land is different than using
the issue as a political wedge. Resurrecting arguments from the sagebrush rebellion makes for great
political theater but such efforts will not take us very far in solving the most pressing issues in
federal lands management.

We’ll be there to make sure Dr. Nie’s prophesy comes true. Will you? 

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