HELENA – The contentious issue of transferring management of federal lands to the state got its first airing at the 2015 Legislature Monday, as a Republican senator presented her bill to prevent the state from selling any transferred land.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls, a leading proponent of the transfer, said her Senate Bill 215 counters the argument from opponents that the transfer would lead to a sell-off of federal public lands.
“There is no question in my mind that the public lands would remain public,” she told the Senate Natural Resources Committee. “This would put into law a prohibition to sell (these lands).”
Fielder also said SB215 is the first of three bills she plans to offer on the federal lands debate – including one creating a task force to study the possible transfer of federal land management to the state.
Yet while Fielder said SB215 should placate opponents claiming the transfer would lead to a public land sell-off. But conservation groups – and the Bullock administration – still opposed her bill Monday.
Clayton Elliott of the Montana Wilderness Association said the bill “embraces the flawed idea” of transferring federal public lands to state ownership or management.
Transferring management of federal forest and grazing lands to the states is being promoted throughout the West by some local lawmakers, free-market interest groups and others, who say it will lead to more sensible energy and timber development and “multiple use.”
Critics say the state doesn’t have the money to manage the lands, and inevitably would end up having to sell some of them to cover the cost.
SB215 says any federal land transferred or granted to the state in the future cannot be sold.
Fielder said it will place a moratorium on any land sales while the management and transfer issue is studied, as well as require the Legislature to reverse the law before any sales would occur.
“This is a safeguard,” she said. “There are fears about lands being sold. I do not support the lands being sold off, and I don’t think most Montanans do.”
Fielder also castigated conservation groups for opposing her bill, noting that they’re organizing a rally next week at the Capitol to “keep public lands public.”
“I think this shows that there is some disingenuous information being circulated about this issue,” she said. “I thought they would support (this bill). There is a conflict that they are going to have to explain to the public.”
Ben Lamb of the National Wildlife Federation, which opposed SB215, said his group “appreciates that (Sen. Fielder) is trying to quell our concerns about whether or not the land would be sold off,” but that the group doesn’t see how the state will pay for managing millions of acres of federal land.
John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, also opposed SB215, saying it could hamstring beneficial state land transactions that already occur.
The state sometimes engages in land trades and other transactions with the federal government, to create more public access or consolidate state public lands, and the bill would prevent those deals, he said.
Fielder said she’s planning an amendment to the bill she hopes would solve that problem, by exempting certain land deals from the moratorium.
The Senate panel took no immediate action on the measure.