Montana’s Land War

by Eric Sharpe

There is a land war taking place in the United States, and the front lines are in Montana.  The consequences of its outcome could threaten to block public access to some of Montanan’s favorite places to hike, camp, fish, hunt and recreate.  The very nature of being a Montanan is embedded in the notion that no matter where you live in the State, you can be in the middle of  “nowhere” in a matter of ten minutes or less.  For those who’ve lived elsewhere, this access to “nowhere” is rare in the United States. And though “nowhere” would not disappear over night if the war is lost, the fear is that one day, it would.

The “war” is about control and use of the some 192 million acres of federally held lands in the United States of which 14.4% (over 27 million aces) is contained in Montana within the boundaries of our 7 National Forests, 2 National Parks, over 8 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land (BLM), other Federal service lands, (see infographic below) and the forests and waters contained within these spaces.  Nationally, federal lands account for about 28% of the total acreage in the United States.  In Montana, nearly 30% of our total land area is held by the federal government for the benefit of Montanans, and all Americans.  Of that 30%, a little over half is cared for by the National Forest Service.


On the surface, the argument which started this war seems logical.  Why should the federal government control so much land contained within our State, or any state for that matter?  Why shouldn’t the states, and thus its citizens, control the stewardship of its own lands?

Nevada leads the country in most federally held territory at 84.9% while neighboring Wyoming holds 48.1% and Idaho 61.6%.  The largest federal holdings by percentage in states just east of the Rocky Mountains is only 13.8% (New Hampshire) while “non-western” states average around 4.3%.  It is mostly western states under the greatest control by the federal government, and it is thus the western states where the war for control is being waged.

Americas Public Lands.jpg

Federal land ownership began when the original 13 states, which had once each controlled vast swaths of land to the Mississippi, agreed to cede this land to the federal government beginning in 1781. With the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Alaska in 1867, and several lands between and since, the Feds expanded their holdings. Today, the government controls nearly 640 million acres.  Federal ownership of land is actually covered in the Constitution under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 – the Property Clause, which essentially gives Congress power over the nation’s holdings.

Typically, acquisitions were made in order to form new states and expand the reach of the country to the West coast, but as various needs were seen for the general welfare of all Americans, many federal holdings were converted to parks and National Forest for the use of all people. It is here when “federal lands” truly became “public lands.” It also held much of this land for private use in stock grazing and mining rights mostly via BLM lands.  Such holdings are still being managed for the public good in agriculture and raw material development.

Though the initial intention was for the federal government to eventually “dispose” of this land (as indicated in the Constitution) to raise revenue and give control to the states, a series of changes in the national conscience in our early history changed this policy.  As citizens and government alike saw the value of “withdrawing” federal public lands from qualification for disposal, permanently held public lands became standard practice to protect certain American landscapes.  The landmark decision to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872 paved the way for the creation of the National Park System. In 1891, President Harrison “was authorized to protect other federal lands by proclaiming forest reserves” which led to the creation of the National Forest System.

Though some states, and citizens, have long argued that lands contained with a state should be held by the states in accordance with the original intent of federal land ownership, it wasn’t until the 1970’s and the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” that this movement gained momentum and a chance to force the transfer of federal lands seemed possible. Led by Senator Oren Hatch of Utah, ranchers and miners complaints that federal lands were not being properly managed for the benefit of their respective industries culminated in a bill before Congress.  Though the move did not cover national parks or forests, the vast acreage held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was on the table for transfer.  As the national press began to cover the story, Americans concerned with public access (including liberal conservationists and conservative hunters whose access to BLM land is vital) voiced vehement opposition leading to the death of the bill.

This effort was only the beginning of the fight, but it wasn’t until 2012 that another real challenge to federal authority over public lands was waged. In March 2012, Utah passed into law the Transfer of Public Land Act, a demand that the “Federal government extinguish its title to an estimated more than 20 million acres of federal public lands in the State of Utah by December 31, 2014.”  The argument by Utah was one of basic rights.  Rep. Ken Ivory who sponsored the bill was quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune, “Are we going to be a state or are we going to be a fiefdom?”  Ivory also helped found the American Lands Council whose mission is to “to secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands to willing States.”  The Utah deadline was ignored by the federal government.

Arizona, Idaho and New Mexico introduced similar bills in recent years.  Wyoming was considering a proposed amendment to their Constitution that called for the ownership and management of federal public lands by 2019 but it was killed by their Senate President on January 20th, 2017.

The call to transfer lands is also a national issue.  According to NPR news, “a provision… calling for the transfer of ownership of federal land to states” was prominent in the Republican National Committee’s platform at their party’s 2016 convention in Cleveland last summer.

In Montana
Montana saw its own legislative push in 2014.  Though the Montana bill was killed in committee, a second push for such legislation in Montana is on the move in early 2017.  Current legislation is being considered (not yet introduced) as proposed by State Senator Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls on December 30th of 2016, in two bills:

    LC2315: Joint resolution to study federal land conveyance.
   LC2316: Joint resolution requesting conveyance of federal land.

The public lands transfer movement in Montana has been largely championed by State Senator Fielder who also currently serves as the CEO of the Federal Lands Council, the spearhead organization for public lands transfer mentioned previously. According to the newspaper the Missoulian, Fielder’s basic argument is that, “State management of these lands… would be free of restrictive federal policies and allow more logging and other activity that helps the local economy.”  Fielder’s District has be been hit hard by lost logging jobs in recent years.  “It was the pain that I see families experiencing as a result of bad public management,” she stated in an interview, according to the Missoulian, that prompted her public lands transfer crusade. She has also argued that the transfer would in fact improve public access.

Fielder has a long history with public lands. She has a degree in recreational planning and has worked for the development of parks, trails, and playgrounds according to the same article.   After moving to Montana in 2001, she began working toward the public lands transfer issue by arguing her point to the Sanders County Natural Resource Council in 2012.  Arguing against Forest Service plans to shut down roads to protect grizzly bear habitat, Fielder painted a bleak picture of the future of Montana’s public lands under Federal control.

But one person at the meeting quoted by the Missoulian assessed that Fielder’s arguments were “about these horrific threats off in the future coming from the federal government, and if we don’t get together and stop them, we’re all going to be in trouble… It’s all about fear. That’s what she’s selling.”  Considering The American Lands Council own studies and literature, this sentiment is hard to argue against.  In its “Montana Federal Land Study & TPL Overview” presented by Fielder, countless claims are made that her county’s residents fear federal management in that:

79% say a high intensity wildfire is likely to cause a LOSS OF IMPORTANT … HABITAT OR HARM THREATENED OR ENDANGERED SPECIES”
64% said federal land management DIMINISHES WATER YIELD for their citizens.
58% report AIR QUALITY FALLS BELOW ACCEPTABLE HEALTH STANDARDS due to smoke originating from fires on federally managed lands.

(cap letters included in original report)

These opinion polls are not based on any seemingly accurate measurement of the claims.  The poll’s methodology for determination of its efficacy was not available.

The argument for
The move to transfer public lands to state control also argues that federal land maintenance is under served and that state’s could better act as the custodians of these lands. The issue of federal maintenance is certainly a valid argument.  According to Montana State Parks’ “2014-2018 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP)”: ”The National Park Service alone had $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance [maintenance not yet performed] at the end of fiscal year 2012.”

Fielder and others have flatly stated that arguments by opponents that such efforts are to “sell off” public lands are a myth.  She further argued in a statement on her blog from 2014 that Montana is more than capable of managing this land:  “There’s substantial evidence supporting the viability of state public land management … western states, including Montana, already successfully own and manage millions of acres of state public lands, employing responsible natural resource management and providing a variety of beneficial uses and good jobs, while enhancing wildlife habitat as well as recreational and hunting opportunities…”

The argument against
Though it is true that Montana manages some 5.58 million acres of State held public land, the vast majority – 5.13 million acres are “State Trust Land” while only 46,906 acres are dedicated to state parks. State Trust Land, which is designated to support “essential public institutions (primarily schools)”, does not require the intensive support that parks and wildlife refuges do.  If Montana added just the BLM land controlled in its boundaries, over 8 million acres, stewardship costs would be immense. The American Lands Council argues that revenue from these lands would offset such costs but studies of the recent Utah law show that their state would have to aggressively “harvest oil and gas and timber” to offset the costs of those newly acquired lands.  This assessment does not bode well for public access.  From a 789 page study done in 2014 on the Utah effort, estimated annual costs of managing transferred lands there was $280 million dollars.  The study concludes, that “the land transfer could be profitable for the state if oil and gas prices remain stable and high and the state assumes an aggressive approach to managing its mineral lease program.”  Since 2014, oil and gas prices have not remained high, nor stable.

The American Lands Council Public Policy Statement does clearly state in their demands to transfer federal lands to state control, that they “support excluding existing National Parks” and “Wilderness Areas” from their demands, and says that states will “retain public ownership of public lands.”  But this argument by pro-transfer groups does not find support in the history books.  In 1938, Nevada received some 400,000 acres from the federal government to assist in the creation of public schools.  By 1951, only 8,000 remained in public hands. According to its own Governor in his oral history from 1965, Republican Governor Charles Russell noted “A number of state officials became very wealthy on the land that they accumulated. This, to me, is one of the low points in Nevada history, because the land had been given to the state of Nevada as having a land-grant college, and much of this land went for a very minimum.”  According to the Review Journal, as of July 2016, “there are 2,914 acres of school trust lands remaining in Nevada” –  a little over seven-tenths of one percent.

If transferred lands in Montana were lost in a manner similar to that of the Nevada debacle, Montanan’s fitness and wellness recreation activities would truly be endangered as, according to Protect Our Public, “In Montana, transfer legislation threatens 41 river runs, 192 climbing areas, and over 420 miles of mountain biking trails.”

Montanas National Parks.jpg

People and public access aside, the wildlife which thrives on federally held lands could suffer the most if public lands are transferred to states that would seek to develop their natural resources for timber and mining production. Certainly, most Montanan’s are not opposed to such industries, but to expand industrial use into these territories would have a potentially catastrophic spiralling effect on the State’s wild residents.  As we all know, disruption of one species’ environment has a cascading effect on other species.  Development in just one area could affect an entire regional population of wildlife.

The Battle Lines
Further, according to American Public, public opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to public lands transfer with 59% of Montanan’s opposed versus 31% in favor. (The remaining are undecided).  In fairness, their poll’s methodology for determination of its efficacy was not available either, but possible support for this conclusion was seen on January 30th, 2017.

That day, over a thousand Montanan’s gathered in the rotunda of the Montana Capitol to protest recent efforts to transfer public lands.  Protesters included conservationists and activists, hunters and hikers, and outdoorsman and citizens concerned with the issue.  According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the rally began with a chant that echoed through the building: “Keep public lands in public hands!”  The rally was in direct response to recent efforts in Montana and at the Federal level to restart the process of land transfer efforts on the heals of Trump’s inauguration.

Governor Bullock was also at the rally and vowed that such plans “have no place in this building and no place in Montana.”  According to the article, “Hilary Hutcheson, a fly-fishing guide from near Glacier National Park and host of the show Trout TV, likened the push for federal land transfers to an attack on a way of life.”  The new push in the Montana Legislature is being led, once again, by State Senator Fielder.  The federal push was being led by Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz who “introduced a bill calling for the disposal of 3.3 million acres of federal land in 10 Western states” according to the Denver Post. After nationwide pressure and a letter sent in opposition to Congress signed by 20 outdoor industry groups including the Outdoor Industry Alliance and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Chaffetz withdrew the bill on February 1st of this year. This was the fifth time he had introduced similar legislation.

The twist in this controversy is the recent appointment of Montana Senator Ryan Zinke as the Secretary of the Interior.  Zinke has publically stated he opposes the transfer of federal lands but many at the rally were worried.  Zinke recently voted in favor of another bill related to public lands transfer which would change how Congress determines the cost of transferring federal land to states, “a move that reportedly would make it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public land” according to the Great Falls Tribune.

Population Pressure
Though Federal Forests and Parks are not currently in the sights of the transfer movement, the concern is that any success to transfer federal lands to state control could begin the slide down a very slippery slope.  Though Montana boasts wide open spaces and small population centers, in the last 15 years, population density has increased dramatically in the highly sought after western Montana land offerings. Looking at the map on page 21 of “Montana’s Population Pressure On Federal Lands”, the population density of Missoula, Kalispell, and the Bitterroot Valley in relation to their location to Federal Forests reveal a clear population pressure being applied to those areas. According to the Forest Service, “Housing density within 10 miles of the Bitterroot National Forest is greater than for any other national forest or grassland.” Also shown on the map, populations in these areas are booming.  From 2000 to 2010, Flathead County grew by 22.1%;  Bozeman centered Gallatin County grew by 32%. The Bitterroot Valley alone expects a population boom progressing to 2030 which could turn the region into a free-for-all land grab with skyrocketing land values.

The fear that land demand by moneyed in-migrants could eventually place pressure on expansion which would lead to encroachment onto public lands is real.  High priced acreage near these lands is already filling up.  In fact, due to grandfathering of National Forest lands declared on and near population centers which existed prior to federal recognition of these areas, and the leasing of federal lands for vacation cabins, Montana’s population is already encroaching on public lands – mostly its forest holdings.  According to a report by the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison “the number of housing units within national forests rose from 335,000 to 1,278,000 between 1940 and 2000… land within the administrative boundaries of national forests is prized real estate.”

Population Pressure on Forests.jpg

Our land or everyone’s land?
Perhaps the best final word on this comes from former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson. In an interview I did with the Senator for another publication in 2014, he explained in simple terms the meaning of federal lands: “To me it’s clear.  When something in Wyoming is owned by the Federal government, it doesn’t mean it belongs to Wyoming, it belongs to everyone in the United States. And you can’t get that through people’s heads.  I tell them it belongs to the guy in Delaware or Florida just as much as it does to us in Wyoming and they don’t like that – but it’s real.”  It is real.  And the fears of transferring any of that land into state hands is real too. The fear is that what happened in Nevada will happen in Montana.  The fear is not about tomorrow, it is about ten years from now, or twenty, or fifty.  The fear is that our children will look back at Montana history and ask, what happened to our great outdoors?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s