Monday, April 20, 2015

Our Public Lands on the Fence

By Todd Tanner

As Google Earth flies, it’s 5 miles and change from the Echo Lake Cafe, which is one of the Flathead Valley’s great little restaurants, to the parking area at Camp Misery.  The trip looks relatively innocuous on a computer screen, but in real life it’s a bumpy half hour by car. Down here in the valley, we’re at 3000’.  Up where the gravel road dead-ends, and where the trail into the Jewel Basin starts, you’re looking at almost twice that.  If you happen to make it all the way to the top of 7500’ Mt. Aneas, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some truly amazing, top-of-the-world views, not to mention mule deer and mountain goats.

In case you’re wondering, we’re talking almost a mile of elevation change.  The really amazing thing, though, is that once you leave the valley floor, all that land, which stretches on seemingly forever, belongs to you, me, and our fellow Americans.  It doesn’t matter whether you live here in Montana, or in Colorado, or Wyoming, or New Mexico. That acreage, which is administered on our behalf by the U.S. Forest Service, is ours.  We we can roam where we choose, we can hike, we can fish the lakes and pick fresh huckleberries for lunch and pitch our tents under that awesome, majestic Big Sky. We’re free to wander to our heart’s content on public land - and for an awful lot of Americans, that’s an incredible thing.

Now whether you, personally, ever take advantage of a place like Jewel Basin, or float the North Fork, or hunt western Montana’s backcountry, is almost besides the point.  The fact that you own those places, and that you benefit, either directly or indirectly, from all that clean air, clean water and wildlife, along with the billions of dollars that our Federal lands inject, year in and year out, into our economy … well, it’s a pretty incredible dividend, paid on the principal - or make that the principle - of public lands. 

I’d go so far as to say that here in Montana, and across the West, our public lands equate to freedom.  Actually, let’s make that freedom and prosperity, because almost everything of substance, from our western heritage to our economy to our recreation, flows down from the bounty of our public lands.  

Which is why it’s so disappointing that 51 U.S. Senators, every single one entrusted with our nation’s well-being, just cast a vote that could help destroy the West; that could turn over America’s public lands to multi-national corporations; that could lock out hunters and hikers and shift control of our timber, our grazing rights, and our minerals, along with the very life blood of the West - our water - to rapacious profiteers and foreign interests.  

That’s right.  51 U.S. Senators just voted in favor of selling off our public lands; in favor of high fences and “No Trespassing” signs. The won’t tell you that, of course.  No, they’ll stand in front of their microphones, puffed out like the cat who ate the canary, and state that they’re for smaller government and state’s rights and local control.  But once you sort through the fine print and make your way through the obligatory smoke & mirrors, you come, first slowly, and then almost inescapably, to the truth of the matter.  This is about power, and plunder, and money.  It’s about water, which is the source of all that power here in the West.  And it’s about the fact that an awful lot of folks back in DC want to privatize our federal lands.  

Montana author Hal Herring called the vote, “an attempt to re-create our country, to vanquish forever the notion that we citizens can hold anything in common. It’s a new paradigm, where the majority of Americans are landless subjects with little recourse in the courts or political process"  Sadly, only a handful of western senators, including Senator Tester of Montana and Senators Bennet and Gardner of Colorado, voted “No.”

So it looks like we have an important decision to make.  Do we turn our back on this grand experiment in democracy?  Do we accept that the future will always be smaller and shabbier than the past?  Do we resign ourselves to a world where our freedoms are locked away behind “No Trespassing” signs?  Or will we choose to fight for what’s ours?  

Because that’s the real question.  Will we give up? Or will we, as a nation, as citizens, stand up and defend the America passed down from our fore-fathers?  

It brings to mind the question Mrs. Powell asked Benjamin Franklin back in 1787.  

“Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” 

Franklin’s response still rings true today. 

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Access Denied

By Ben Lamb

In the four sessions I’ve worked the Montana Legislature one truth has been ever present: Some legislators don’t like Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and they detest sportsmen lobbyists. That’s why there’s traditionally been over 150 – 200 bills a session dealing with critters. It’s been an onslaught from folks looking to legislate hunting seasons because they were upset when the Commission restored the 90% rule on resident elk hunting in Central and Eastern Montana to eliminating the ability to sensibly manage large carnivores because the wolf wasn’t coming off the endangered species list fast enough.

That’s changed this session, in large part to the sheer numbers of wildlife and access lobbyists in the building, and the overwhelming support FWP, hunting, fishing, public land and access have in Montana. In fact, every session, hundreds of Montanans show up to protest thoughtless, damaging bills being pushed to eliminate access and steal our public lands.
Access is sacrosanct in Montana. Every election cycle it’s a cornerstone of campaigns on both sides of the aisle. It’s an issue that bridges the partisan gap, except for some. Representative Dave Hagstrom (R-Billings) seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. During executive action for HB 403 on March 25th,  he supported not only gutting the authority of FWP to spend license dollars on programs that sportsmen and women support, fight for and get established, but to eliminate those programs altogether in 2017:

There are some people who just don’t want the state buying more land and we want to think about it. And I share Representative Ellis’s angst, that I don’t really like the state to hang on to 12 million dollars for another two years, but I think this will give us the chance to work for the next two years on removing that statutory authority for the state to just continue to accumulate money to buy more land.

That’s right, no more waterfowl production sites, conservation easements with access requirements. No more wildlife management areas to protect critical winter range and no more fishing access sites.

Besides the obvious attack on access and the $6 billion outdoor economy, Hagstrom’s wrong. The state doesn’t accrue those funds. FWP does. Those are user fees paid by hunters and anglers who have mandated through their advocacy and legislation that the funds must be unavailable to the State for other uses. They’re not going to education, legislator healthcare or any other program. They’ll just sit there, not being used as statutorily mandated.

·         Here’s the list of what has been removed from HB 403:

Reduced the state special revenue appropriation for the Migratory Bird Program by $210,000 and restricted the use of the balance to prevent land acquisition. 
·         Eliminated the Upland Game Bird program appropriation of $849,000. 
·         Eliminated the Habitat Montana program appropriation of $10,668,000. 
·         Eliminated the Big Horn Sheep Habitat program appropriation of $460,000. 
·         Eliminated the Fishing Access Site program appropriation of $345,000. 
The amendments resulted in total reductions of $12,532,000 to FWP land acquisition, conservation and access programs. 

Fishing, apparently, is a great threat to private property rights. So is working on Bighorn Sheep Habitat. And more ducks.

Some legislators are still upset over the former Governor Schweitzer’s policies of purchasing lands. We all get that. But let’s look at the reality of the last two years. Governor Bullock made it a priority to pull those purchases back and focus on managing what FWP currently owns and working with landowners on conservation easements.

When you look at the Natural Resources sub-committee that worked on this issue, it’s not difficult to see why these programs were cut. Senator John Brenden has been antagonistic to sportsmen and FWP since buffalo roamed Daniels county. Senator Matt Rosendale hasn’t been a friend of access or sportsmen during his tenure either. Representative Nancy Balance doesn’t seem to want to understand that diversion of FWP funds for her pet projects like compensating landowners for crop damage and forcing FWP to spend $350K a year on shooting ranges would cost us $24 million a year in excise tax funds that help manage wildlife. Chairman Glimm, a sophomore representative from Kila seems like a nice enough guy, but, he was clearly demonstrating a lack of knowledge on how FWP budgeting works through his questions to the agency. Yet here he was, chairing the committee in charge of allocating authority to FWP to spend sportsmen’s money.

And now we have Representative Hagstrom, who laid it out perfectly in his testimony on the 25th of March: The goal is to eliminate these wildly popular programs & shut down access and access funding.

Representative Hagstrom having a bad day. 
Luckily, sportsmen & wildlife lobbyists have been paying attention and as HB 403 moves through the process. The bill passed the House and it’s been referred to Senate Finance and Claims. If the Montana GOP hopes to retain hunters and anglers in their core, they’re going to have to restore the spending authority so access isn’t cratered by the same people claiming that the State can manage 31 million acres of public land.

Senators Brenden and Rosendale have been leading proponents of the transfer and sale of public land, which is a bit of a head-scratcher since it’s been Senator Brenden and Senator Rosendale who have been enthusiastic supporters of disallowing the state to gain any new lands in the past sessions (No Net Gain bills magically disappeared this session). Now, they’re voting to eliminate critical access programs on one hand, while telling everyone that public lands, which allow a heck of a lot more access than state lands, are evil and the cause of everyone’s distemper and flu along with economic hard times (regardless of the fact that the state has a whopping budget surplus).

Meanwhile, the Montana Shooting Sports Association & Chairwoman Ballance continue to push the failed concept of mandatory spending on gun ranges. I suppose, in the end game for these guys, we’ll all have guns (except FWP) and we’ll all line up at shooting ranges flinging lead into targets instead of up in the hills, looking for elk.

Senate Finance and Claims can fix this mess easily. Just restore the spending authority and give hunters and anglers the access programs they constituently fight for back. Because, as Representative Hagstrom said: That’s the big downside to it, it does eliminate access to some hunting and fishing sites, and so that’s what we’ll argue about.”  

And we will argue about it until the authority to provide access is restored. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Shake the Foundation

The Legislative Session thus far has been a bit of a slow dance when it comes to public land and fish & wildlife bills. Not a lot of action, nor has there been as much acrimony. But it’s not going to stay calm for long.

Currently, a few legislators are maneuvering some bills to try and achieve the Transfer of Public Lands. But lacking much support from even within their own caucus, the raft of over 50 bills related to the Transfer and Sale of Public Lands has seemingly been winnowed down to three, if we’re to believe the Republican Party Caucus Sheet from this week. Those three bills are…interesting and I understand that proponents of this effort are trying to paint a picture of what their nirvana when only the government owns the land would look like, but honestly, I find these bills to be a little insulting to our collective intelligence.

For example: SB  215 would prohibit the sale of land transferred to the state by the federal government. While this sounds good on the surface, once you peel back the layers it looks a little less ripe. The sponsor’s attempt to asuage the concerns of Montanans who rightly believe that this attempt to wrest control of public lands out of the hands of the actual public which owns them is commendable; but this ain’t our first rodeo.

We remember the previous sessions where the legislature almost passed several bills that would have severely curtailed not only our ability to own state land and severely impacted our ability to access both public and private lands through our block management programs and Habitat Montana, which expected to come under assault once again as Legislators show their real hand, and claim that the State can’t manage what it has now, like they have the last three sessions. 

Perhaps a transformation has been made, however, among the true believers. Perhaps the over 300 people who stood in a driving rain on a cold September afternoon or 94% of public comment opposed to the transfer and sale of public land convinced them that it’s time to hang it up, to finally start working with the same people they've spent the last decade fighting: Those of us who sit down with our neighbors at Resource Advisory Councils and Forest Collaboratives and hash out our differences like neighbors instead of plaintiff and defendant.

Nobody with any common sense thinks that our forests are being managed correctly. Nobody believes that our BLM lands are getting the attention they deserve when it comes to weed eradication. But it is not the fault of the American people that Congress has cut funding by over 30% in the last two decades to our public lands management agencies while demanding more and more of them. At some point, the agency cracks, and the prophesies of doom sold by elected officials who have made them self-fulfilling by only placing roadblocks in our Public Land Agencies way.

When fire-fighting takes up 50% of the Forest Service’s budget, and congresses response is to cut your spending elsewhere, you cannot logically or honestly blame anyone other than who caused the problems: The same politicians now telling us that the fed can’t manage land that belongs to every single American citizen, so we have to hand it over to state governments.

We even have a case in point with our own Senator Steve Daines. Senator Daines, fresh in his seat in the United States Senate, decided to introduce an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill currently being debated. His amendment would not do anything. It would just say that he thinks the Land and Water Conservation Fund is good, and Congress should make the plan permanent sometime this century. That’s it. No action, no real solutions, just a bit of feel-goodery. Meanwhile, his caucus members in the Senate had a good amendment, carried by Senator Burr (R) from North Carolina. That bill would permanently reauthorize the Land & Water Conservation Fund and provide that 1.5 percent of the proceeds deposited in the account would be used to increase access to land-locked public lands. That last part is from a bill that Congressman Daines sponsored last session. Yet Senator Daines cast the deciding vote against an issue he, until that day, had been good on.
Maybe we, as the citizens or America are responsible. After all, we elected these people.

But we also elected good people. This week we heard from one of them. In his State of the State address, Governor Bullock had some short, but profound words on the subject: 

Those few words throw down the gauntlet on public lands this session. There is a rally for public lands on February 16th, 2015 in Helena Montana. Buses are available from Butte, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula.  We did this in September on a cold and rainy day. 350 people turned out because public lands matter to Montanans. The short-term, boom and bust economies we all cringe about would return. Sure there’d be a few more jobs, but only for a few short years. The Bakken is a prime example of the folly of over-development. It’s the same bust that’s hit the west every 20 years, and we’re having the same arguments we always have, every 20 years.

Even Congressman Zinke backed that up today in his address to the Legislature, declaring that public lands are not for sale. Unfortunately, Congressman Zinke then said that he would rather give them away by supporting the Transfer of Public Lands; which is strange, because until today, he was against that.

It’s time we laid the nonsense to rest and show our elected officials that public land matters to Montanans, and in the hands of the United States Citizens they will stay.

Let’s shake the foundation of the Capitol. Please join us on February 16th in Helena. High noon. Click this link to RSVP and get your spot on a bus reserved. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jazz and the Ol’ Duck Hunter

By Bert Lindler

Rivers in summer hold little attraction to the Ol’ Duck Hunter.

There’s no reason then to slip behind a screen of rose, cradling a fowling piece, swaddled in white.

No reason to wait, lab at your side, while ducks float down the river’s center, a few leaving the current, feeding just out of range in the eddy near your decoys, attracting other mallards that set their wings, drop and land, still too far.

The only hunter visible from the hide wears white, head and tail. In its sights, a lone duck, floating close to the snow-covered ice lining the river’s banks. The eagle swoops, talons ready as the duck dives.  Again.  Again. The duck tires. Another swoop, another dive, and the duck floats on.

Waterfowl regulations are many, but the Ol’ Duck Hunter follows two additional rules: take nothing but drakes, and shoot until the duck is dead.

The hens are the future, the drakes expendable and ever so attractive in their refracted green headgear.

If a duck drops, but hits the water swimming, it’s best to use another shell so the duck lies dead in the eddy rather than watch the chase, Jazz’s head bobbing in the strong, cold current as desire pulls him farther and farther downstream.

Jazz is a North Dakota farm dog, let free to roam and so starved for companionship that he jumped into the cab of the Ol’ Duck Hunter’s pickup during a years-ago pheasant hunt. The farmer had no desire to keep Jazz, timid, shy, never make a hunting dog. So, after the proper arrangements, Jazz rode back to Montana with the Ol’ Duck Hunter.

When introduced to the duck boat, Jazz got in, but at the outboard’s first cough, leapt for safety.

After a few aborted launches and a morning’s deliberate cruise, Jazz was fine with the tools of the trade.

The duck boat, welded wide-bottomed utility, parts the river and lifts ducks on either side that hang briefly in the cold air like summer’s mosquitoes.  Above them, trumpeter swans, seven, white, necks far before them, wings beating deliberately against the gray morning’s mist.

Once Jazz, the Ol’ Duck Hunter, and decoys are delivered, the duck boat becomes a billboard of sorts, warning, “Hunters Nearby.” The Ol’ Duck Hunter moors the boat as far from the hide as possible but not so far that he can’t reach it in time if a duck floats downstream out of Jazz’s reach.

Throughout the day, most ducks regard the billboard’s warning, staying high and midriver as they fly over.  A few fail to see or heed the billboard, passing within range of the Ol’ Duck Hunter’s 20 gauge. They fall, Jazz swims and they’re laid to rest inside the snowy hide.

Hunt concluded, the pickup relies on all four wheels to climb snowy tracks carved into the hillside, the Ol’ Duck Hunter at the wheel, Jazz resting on a blanket behind the seat, the duck boat being tugged behind.

At the pavement, a field of standing corn. Calligraphies of ducks are written across the sky—hundreds, thousands, thousands more—streaming from the river, wheeling in large circles before dropping to the winter table set for them.

Season ending a few days hence, mallard bounty in the pickup bed, promise of future seasons circling above the corn.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bringing on the Heartache

We all lie awake the night before opening morning, unable to sleep because we’ve built up the anticipation of walking in the woods with a bow or rifle to the  level of childish glee that comes on Christmas eve when you know Santa is bringing you everything you asked for. The antithesis of that happens the night before The Montana Legislature is back in Helena; at least if you’re a hunter, angler or Montanan who sees the phrase “treasure state” and doesn’t immediately think of inflated profit margins. The Legislature over the last few sessions has been remarkably antagonistic to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as the access, conservation and wildlife statutes that protect Montana’s abundant big game hunting opportunities and scientific management of wildlife.
It’s already shaping up to be another session full of controversy and strife. But it’s a little different this year. There are about 40 fewer bills requested than 2013. Only 19 have been introduced. Out of that 19, several have already been making their way through the system. There’s a lot of small bills right now, things like Allow development of boat dock on Wild Horse Island, or Generally Revise Fishing Derby Law. There’s the bigger stuff as well, like increasing fines on people who harass game, shoot from the road or in general, act like slobs.  

Here's a few more that are in the que:

Revise Bison Laws: Representative Alan Redfield wants to require FWP to do a range analysis in any area that FWP would consider putting a herd of wild bison. Current statute already defines FWP’s obligation to determine carrying capacity for any place where they’d likely drop a buff or two, but this amendment to current law would also specify that FWP would have to use either the MSU Extension Service or the Federal  National Resources Conservation Service. But here’s the thing: I think that there is an unintended consequence that comes with this level of scrutiny that livestock producers who lease public lands might not like: You’re inviting the government to your allotment to count blades of grass. But, I suppose we should be relieved that we’re at least boiling the bison issue down to what it’s really about: Who eats what grass, and where.

Taking the “Public” out of Public Hunting: Sponsored by Senator Doug Kary, this bill would remove the prescription that landowners must allow public hunting as a condition of receiving sportsman’s license dollars to help mitigate problematic concentrations of critters. The issue is being promoted by the same outfitter who tried unsuccessfully for the last 3 sessions to set archery seasons by legislation rather than through the 100 year old process through the Fish & Wildlife Commission. The problem you see is this: Landowners who don’t allow any public hunting and take large amounts of money to either outfit or lease their ranches don’t want elk eating their hay. They want FWP to come in and either kill them, haze them , or buy the landowner a lot of very expensive fence. So, in essence, they want to have their cake and it too.
Boosting Block Management : Representative Kelly Flynn is an outfitter, landowner and sportsman. He’s also the chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee. His bill to increase the amount of funding for block management is not without controversy. The Chairman’s bill would change the amount of funding allocated, or earmarked, for Block Management from 25% of Nonresident tag cost to 33%. On it’s surface, it sounds pretty good: Increased funding for Block Management is needed and this would help get us there. But the law of unintended consequences comes to play here as well. FWP is facing a significant shortfall of funds if their license revamp bill doesn’t pass later this session. While Representative Flynn is honestly working to find solutions, this bill has a long road ahead of it due to how it shifts funding, resulting in a situation where you’re robbing Peter in order to pay Paul. We are, however, extremely grateful that Representative Flynn has been working with sportsmen lobbyists to find common ground and a reasonable path forward. I believe that by the end of the session, we will see some good movement forward in maintaining Montana’s world-class wildlife and access programs, while respecting the rights of our ranching and farming neighbors.

We’re still in the early days though, and as the old line goes – there’s many a slip twixt a cup and a lip. As bills move forward, and issues boil over, we’ll be there to let everyone know that it’s time to suit up, and get in the fight.

Montana’s calling, let’s make sure she’s there forever.