Panel highlights flaws with federal land transfer attempts

Some people may be so fed up with the federal bureaucracy that they want the states to control public land. But that would remove more options than people think so it may be best to just keep working with what we’ve got, according to a Montana panel of experts.

On Wednesday night, about 100 people listened to a panel of five speakers representing diverse interests discuss whether it would be better to allow states manage public land. On the whole, the panel agreed state control probably wouldn’t improve much, depending on what was being measured.

Panelist Holly Fretwell is research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, a Bozeman-based think tank that advocates for property rights. Fretwell said state control looks good to some because they think of state trust lands that, by federal law, must be managed to produce revenue. So each section of state trust land is managed to maximize revenue from timber, grazing or natural-resource extraction.

But if federal lands were transferred to the states, would or could the state effectively manage such a large amount of public land so it all provide maximum revenue?

Fretwell wasn’t sure. But it would take more management, and things like access and public input would definitely change because state trust lands aren’t managed for multiple-use like federal lands must be.

“If we transfer those lands, it’s going to change the management structure that we get. You may like that outcome if maximized revenues is something that you want. You may not like that outcome if free recreation access is something that you want,” Fretwell said. “State trust lands provide recreation, but that‘s not their No. 1 goal.”

While she wasn’t encouraging land transfer, Fretwell said lessons could be learned from state land management, because reform was needed.

Martin Nei, professor of natural resource policy in the UM College of Forestry and Conservation, said transfer was a prelude to privatization because states couldn’t afford to manage such increase in land. He objected to the oft-repeated argument of federal vs. state management precisely because federal and state lands are managed for different outcomes: money vs. many public uses, many of which aren’t revenue-producing. So the argument devolves into blaming the agency, which has to try to manage more complex issues than just producing revenue. And while federal land agencies are being asked to manage for more uses, Congress is asking them to do more with less as budgets are cut, Nie said.

“It always starts the same way. When people realize federal land transfer isn’t going to happen, they start back-pedaling. It starts to snowball into complaints of federal land mismanagement. Some are fair but what’s so infuriating is all of us here are trying to fix those problems on a daily basis,” Nei said. “The federal land agencies could efficiently exploit our natural resources if Congress told them to do so. But that’s not the case. If you look at the statutes, Congress has directed the Forest Service and the (Bureau of Land Management) not to manage for the greatest unit output and economic activity.”

Clayton Elliott, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, also said that many like to vilify federal agencies for being inefficient, but they won’t acknowledge that Congress doesn’t give the agencies sufficient funds to be effective.

Elliott harkened back to a few bills from the 2015 Montana Legislator that would have added further inefficiencies to the Forest Service process, for instance by requiring county commissioners to approve every federal land sale or transfer.

“What’s behind this movement is a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you block the agency from being able to function, it validates your argument that the agency can’t function and therefore we have to get rid of the agency. And that’s a real significant problem in this debate,” Elliott said.

Rather than transfer federal land to the states, interested parties should engage federal land managers in collaborative efforts such as the Blackfoot Challenge, Elliott said.

Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands Alliance recreation planning and policy manager, said if lands weren’t managed as state trust lands, transfer wouldn’t solve the management problem - it would just transfer those problems to the state. And while people can now camp as readily on federal land in Wyoming as well as Montana, that wouldn’t happen under state control because many states don’t make public land as accessible as Montana does, Eisen said.

The problem is, while almost three-quarters of Montanans like to recreate on public land, many other Americans haven’t even had that experience so they don’t value it. More people need to get out to enjoy their public lands so the rest of the nation looks more like Montana, Eisen said.

Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, owns a logging operation and would love to have fewer hoops to jump through when it comes to processing timber sales. But as a state legislator, he knows that land transfer wouldn’t eliminate the federal requirements of the Endangered Species Act or Wilderness Study Areas, among others.

The Forestry Division of the Department of Natural Resources Conservation is doing a good job managing timber on state lands, Connell said, and he doesn’t think the DNRC could be as effective if it had to manage lands in another two-thirds of the state.

Finally, climate change is changing the forests, increasing the likelihood of wildfire. Montana couldn’t fight all the wildfires in the state alone, Connell said.

“The fires we had in 1910 were not the result of mismanagement,” Connell said. “I sure as heck prefer that 336 million taxpayers of the United State of America pay for all of the costs, whether its recreation or fire-fighting, of our public lands than 1,036,000 Montana citizens,” Connell said.

The forum was held in the University of Montana Law School and was sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, Project on American Democracy and Citizenship, Bolle Center for People and Forests, and the Mansfield Ethics and Public Affairs Program.