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. 

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