Risky Business

States consider public-land acquisition.

How would you feel if the Gallatin National Forest went up for sale on the open market? Well, it could happen, if some Western lawmakers have their way. Both Nevada and Utah have passed provisions for the states to take control of federally managed land, and here at home, the Montana GOP recently voted to make federal land-transfer a goal.

The federal government controls 29% of Montana’s total area, under management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The underlying problem is that Montana’s public lands are rich with natural resources, which—according to some state legislators—are being mismanaged.

Many Montanans disagree, however, and the challenges of acquiring the land could be detrimental to the state economy. Sen. Jon Tester said on Aug. 5, “There is no way we could absorb our share of $200 million the federal government now pays. The only way to keep the state budget whole would be to sell off those public lands.”

Which critics of the idea say is the whole point. Energy development, timber sales, mining interests—for cash-strapped state governments, selling recently-acquired federal lands to developers could be a tempting short-term solution to budget woes. But in the long term, most Montanans would rue the loss of land in which to hunt, fish, bike, horse-pack, and hike. Thus, they probably share State Representative Bill McChesney’s position on the subject: “The state is not for sale.”