Lands win in the legislature.
Earlier this year, Montanan recreationists of all stripes—from hunters and fishermen to mountain bikers and backpackers—beat back a dozen bills aimed at transferring ownership of American public lands to the state. Montanans realized the threat: a lands transfer would ruin our way of life and ruin our recreation economy. The state just couldn’t afford to manage the 30 million acres of public lands, leaving no choice but to sell them off to the highest bidder. Thankfully, all of these bills were killed by a bipartisan coalition of legislators under the leadership of Governor Steve Bullock. In addition to defeating these dangerous proposals, legislators on both sides of the aisle worked with Bullock to pass bills that will invest more than $30 million in improving wildlife habitat, access, and public-land acquisition. We all look forward to seeing the benefit this summer on the trail, on the river, and in the field. Here are five noteworthy bills in particular.
SB 348, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls), would have required state legislative and county commission approval for any additional public land access purchases by the United States Forest Service. Bill died in the process.
HB 496, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White (R–Bozeman), would have created a new government task force to study federal land management and facilitate further discussions of transfer. Vetoed by Governor Bullock.
SB 326, sponsored by Sen. Jedidiah Hinkle (R–Bozeman), improves access to public lands by increasing the camping day limit on state trust lands. Became law.
HB 403, sponsored by Rep. Dave Hagstrom (R–Billings), provides for long-range building appropriations, including millions of dollars in wildlife-habitat funding. Became law.
HB 140, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn (R-Dillon), increases base funding for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to manage wildlife and public access programs. Became law.
Champs & Chumps
In the ongoing land-transfer struggle, a few folks stand out—on both sides of the battlefield. Here’s a recap of admirable acts and shameful shenanigans for the 2015 legislative session.
Rep. Ed Lieser (D–Whitefish). A retired forester, Rep. Lieser fought in the trenches of the House Natural Resources Committee this session to push back against the radical land-transfer agenda, helping to defeat a number of dangerous measures in committee and on the floor.
Sen. Pat Connell (R–Hamilton). A true champion of collaborative natural-resource management, Sen. Connell worked across the aisle to bring people to the table to improve access and forest health rather than pursuing the out-of-step land-transfer agenda.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R–Thompson Falls). The Montana legislature’s chief proponent of transferring public lands, Sen. Fielder brought numerous bills (many of which were blatantly unconstitutional) that would have crippled our ability to effectively improve access and public-land management.
Rep. Kerry White (R–Bozeman). A longtime critic of Wilderness designation and advocate for increased motorized use on public lands, Rep. White worked to diligently advance the transfer agenda. As the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, he sponsored the transfer-study bill that was vetoed by Governor Bullock.
Clayton Elliott is the state policy director for the Montana Wilderness Association.