Committee OK's shifting Habitat Montana toward access issues

9 p.m. UPDATE: HB 651 failed the second reading on the House floor by a vote of 47-53, so the bill is probably dead.

In spite of overwhelming opposition, Republicans have resurrected a bill to create a second public-land access specialist and spend sportsmen’s dollars buying land for access that might be poor habitat.

In a specially scheduled meeting Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Kerry White, R-Bozeman, brought House Bill 651 up for an unprecedented third round of executive action. HB 651 would create another position under the state land board to increase access to state lands using Habitat Montana funds, even though Montana already has a public-access specialist working in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

HB 651 had no public support when it was heard in committee on Friday after being introduced the day before. In spite of the 15 people who rose to oppose the bill, White moved the bill to a vote immediately after the hearing and it passed.

Those attending the Friday hearing protested the fast-tracking of the bill. So it didn’t move forward but was brought up for a vote again on Monday with an amendment.

Many of the opponents said that among many parts of the bill, they didn’t like the section that funded the position with a portion of hunting license fees and took the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission out of the land-approval process. Opponents included representatives of the DNRC, FWP, Montana Wildlife Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Anaconda Sportsmen, the Montana Bowhunters, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Wild Sheep Foundation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Trout Unlimited and Montana Audubon.

The bill also shifts the emphasis of Habitat Montana money from procuring land for habitat to gaining public access. Habitat Montana was created in 1987 to use a portion of license fees to fund the purchase of land or conservation easements to preserve large sections of Montana’s wildlife habitat. Sportsmen revolt against any lessening of Habitat Montana and they still resent the 2015 Legislature for limiting funds to the purchase of conservation easements only.

On Monday, Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, proposed an amendment to remove the section of HB 651 that eliminated FWP commission authority and used license fees to fund the position. That amendment failed on a 5-10 vote, which caused HB 651 to be tabled.

Tabling a bill isn’t the same as killing it, and on Wednesday, White revived the bill again with the same amendment. Flynn again sponsored the amendment but admitted that the bill was still flawed. He agreed with the opponents that somehow the FWP commission needed to be given some input into the selection of public lands. He also said that lands procured with Habitat Montana funds are already required to provide public access.

“This bill needs some work. Even with this amendment out, the challenge will be that, when this goes to the floor, some folks are going to have to work on it,” Flynn said. “What we have is trying to figure out how we can navigate something where we have what looks like an redundancy but with the goal of solving the problem of access to those lands. This is not a perfect bill and I don’t intend to represent it as thus.”

This time, the amendment passed unanimously. As a result, HB 651 passed Wednesday on an 11-4 vote.

Amendment or not, sportsmen are not happy with HB 651, because it still emphasizes access, not habitat.

If HB651 passes, the Habitat Montana appropriation language would include "It is the legislature's intent that Habitat Montana funds… be used first to secure public access to state lands for which there is currently no legal access for hunting or other wildlife-oriented recreation."

So HB 651 would allow the land board – now dominated by Republican politicians - to approve the use of Habitat Montana money for buying easements or land that has no good wildlife habitat but merely allows access to state land. And that’s not what sportsmen want, said Montana Sportsmen Alliance spokesman Joe Perry.

“The land board has no experience; they don’t know good habitat from bad. And they’re talking the FWP and the natural resource people out of it,” Perry said. “The Republican caucus is trying to make us believe they’re pro-access, and they certainly haven’t been anywhere along the way. Access is a huge issue. But the real issue is access to quality habitat and that means there should be no attacks on Habitat Montana. Maybe they should ask hunters what we want instead of telling us what we want.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said it’s surprising that Republicans should be supporting wasting $200,000 out of the general fund on a redundant position.

“This is an example of inefficient government – it’s duplicative. We already have a person less than a year on the job whose task is to gain access to public lands. This is a tight budget year so the last thing we need to do is add staff for positions that already exist,” Gevock said.

The fast-tracking continues, however, as the House hears the bill on Wednesday at 5 p.m. The pressure is on because Friday is the deadline to pass all bills to the other side of the Legislature. Any bills not approved will die.