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Editorial icon

On Friday's Opinion page, Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls, declared that she “won’t be bullied” by those opposing the transfer of federal lands in Montana to the state’s control.

Neither, apparently, will she let the facts get in the way of her narrative.

While she rightly points out that one of the several bills regarding federal lands transfer that she sponsored was designed to prevent the sale of any lands transferred to state control, that misses the point.

The state would quickly incur massive management expense if federal lands were transferred to state control. While a ban on sales would initially keep the state from selling off lands to defray the management expense, as the state’s fiscal hole got deeper and deeper it could and very likely would move to change the law to allow sales.

In addition, the state would likely be forced to dramatically expand timber sales as a means of balancing the books, wreaking havoc with conservation plans.

The fact is that it is neither the “Montana Democrat Party,” as she disrespectfully calls the state Democratic Party, nor the Wilderness Association she vilifies that is the largest constituency opposing the public land transfer scheme.

The largest group in opposition is a majority of Montanans themselves.

Does federal land management sometimes fall short of what some Montanans would like, in terms of logging and grazing access? Of course it does. The feds need to listen more closely to a wide variety of wilderness constituencies.

But that same management also protects and preserves federal lands for everyone to enjoy. It balances the interests of the timber industry, sportsmen and those of us who know that wilderness is both priceless and in dwindling supply.

Montanans need and want those protections.

Fielder says that the “grass roots movement for local control has been so successful that seventeen states and the U.S. Congress have now initiated legislation in favor of turning federal lands over to willing states.” She adds that “more are joining” the movement “every day.”

Poppycock.

This extreme movement has no more credibility, popular support or realistic chance of success than it did when it surfaced under the facile rubric of “sagebrush rebellion” decades ago. It is instructive to note that even the Montana Wood Products Association opposes the transfer.

It’s not “powerful, wealthy bullies” that killed Fielder’s ill-advised bills. It was the opposition of Montanans who understand that some functions of government are actually better left to the feds, and control of public lands is one of those. Indeed, once federal lands fall under state control, the stream of lobbyists descending on Helena from powerful industrial interests would be unending.

Can federal stewardship be improved to reflect Montana realities? Absolutely. But wresting federal lands that belong to everyone out of the federal purview is a huge overreaction. It would very likely lead to reduced public access, and potentially to the permanent loss of our great wilderness birthright.

This editorial was first printed in the Montana Standard.

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