Across the West, a dangerous movement of radical fringe groups and oil, mining and other development interests are buying off politicians to “transfer” America’s federal wildlands to the states where they can be sold to private companies for profit.
The Missouri River Breaks has been identified as an area that might be at for seizure by the state. Photo by Bob Wick (BLM).
Two-thirds of Montana voters say they visit public lands six or more times per year, powerfully attesting to the status of Our Wild and outdoor recreation in the identity of "Big Sky Country." But the state that contains Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness still isn't immune to the "land takeover" craze that has recently swept the country, threatening to leave Our Wild open for commercialization and closed to outdoor recreation seekers.
The fringe movement that blew up in the public consciousness with the 2016 Malheur standoff in Oregon has steadily spread to the Bundys' ideological comrades in state legislatures, and even to Washington DC, where it influences many anti-conservation members of Congress. The Montana Republican Party made public land takeover attempts a part of its official platform in 2014, and several pieces of legislation have been introduced at the local level to pave the way for signing some lands over to the state.
As this threat gains strength, we must stand up to defend Our Wild. These are just a few reasons why.
Reasons to fight against land takeovers in Montana
1) Montana would not be able to afford taking over federal public lands: If Montana were to seize national public lands for state control, they would be taking on a massive new financial burden. While it is tough to say exactly how much it would cost, one estimate based on 25 million acres of public lands included in a recent resolution was $501 million—yes, half a billion dollars. To quote state representative Bill McChesney, “This state cannot afford to assume ownership of federal lands. As Sen. Jon Tester has pointed out, the budgetary strain would likely force the state to sell off those lands.
2) Montanans could miss out on full access to Our Wild: In Montana, state trust lands are managed to generate revenue--as opposed to national public lands presided over by federal agencies, which are managed for multiple uses including recreation and conservation of wildlife habitat. If public lands fell under state control, they could be sold off to private interests and made into exclusive getaways rather than democratic wildlands. As a staffer from a Montana sportsmen group told the Missoulian, "my biggest fear is it would have to be disposed of or sold, in which case we lose it. That’s part of the reason a lot of us live here" (Indeed, 82% of Montanans say they regularly participate in hiking, camping or other outdoor activities). A report from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership expressed concern that land takeovers could close off access to sportsmen, specifically, and identified a high-profile example of a land that could be seized: the Missouri River Breaks, a prized getaway for hunters.
Additionally, lands under state control that remain open may have different regulations that add hurdles to enjoying the outdoors. For example, on lands managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation—versus by a federal land agency—you may be required to pay for a special permit to camp outside of an established campground.
3) Everyday Montanans value Our Wild and want it to stay public: In 2016, the Center for Western Priorities released a poll that found 95% of Montana voters feel public lands like national parks and forests are "an essential part of Montana’s quality of life." In addition, 80% of Montana voters would be more likely to support a political candidate who proposed to protect access to the outdoors.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. It is abundantly clear that Montanans love public lands and want them to stay protected and accessible to all:
96% of Montanans say that ensuring access for recreational activities is an "important" priority for public lands.
78% of Montanans would be opposed to selling public lands in order to reduce the budget deficit.
61% of Montanans say they would be opposed to giving the state government control over national public lands and having taxpayers assume responsibility for them.
68% of Montanans say that national parks, forests and other public lands belong to everyone in the U.S., not just the people of Montana.
4) Prominent Montanans and local institutions want Our Wild to stay public: Some local politicians have taken up the dangerous cause of public land takeovers, but not all Montana's leaders and institutions feel that way. Gov. Steve Bullock has made it clear he does not endorse a public lands takeover, and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) has said that land takeover attempts in Montana are a mistake. Despite the fact that the state Republican Party platform includes pro-land takeover language, some legislators within the party reportedly refused to support the measure, and some state representatives have introduced legislation that opposes land takeovers.
The Montana Wildlife Federation opposes land takeovers, and the Montana-based executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers calls them a "waste of Montanans' money" that amount to "more taxes and less access."
5) Public land seizure would hurt Montana's economy: Montana's spectacular public lands help fuel the economy, and any threat to accessing those places is a threat to Montanans' financial wellbeing.
First of all, a number of businesses in the state have said public lands and outdoor recreation influenced their decision to base a company in Montana in the first place. If cherished national public lands were seized by the state, it could threaten one of Montana's biggest selling points for employers and the people they recruit. The trade group Business for Montana Outdoors, representing more than 100 business owners in the state, referred to potential land takeovers as "a colossal mistake" that could jeopardize this competitive advantage.
Second of all, public land itself is a big component of Montana's economy. Each year, outdoor recreation in the state generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending, directly supporting 64,000 jobs ($1.5 billion in wages and salaries). A lot of that activity takes place on public lands—and if people are suddenly barred from some of their favorite spots, it will mean less money going to local communities.
Sportsmen, business leaders, rational elected officials and conservationists are standing together to prevent land seizure measures from becoming law. But they need support to show politicians that Americans won’t tolerate efforts to privatize Our Wild in Montana or elsewhere. The threat is real, and now is the time to stand up to it.