Lies of the Land


By Dave Skinner

Greens, of course, are fine with the current dysfunction, as it empowers them, not average Montanans

Well, I got back from visiting Pugetopia just in time to learn about Montana’s evil House Republicans holding an unannounced caucus meeting. Two reporters crashed the event after being tipped off – anonymously, naturally. Makes one wonder if the nice Democrats held their own private powwow at the same time.

The good news (besides Kalispell’s Keith Regier becoming majority leader) is, a survey given to Republican legislators at the meeting asked how they felt about what almost certainly will be big issues in the 2015 Legislature: Medicaid expansion, preschool for 4-year olds, the CSKT water compact, dark money, the overall state budget, and transferring federal public lands to state control (“TPL” is the new shorthand). That’s good to know.

So, what about transferring federal lands to Montana? Greens, of course, are fine with the current dysfunction, as it empowers them, not average Montanans. The mere idea of the state of Montana controlling any current Forest Service lands has environmentalists in a tizzy, making all sorts of specious claims – such as:

Montana can’t afford the cost of wildfire fighting. Utter tommyrot, at least in the long term. Today’s high, landscape-scale fire risk (a result of paralytic federal policy) is certainly real, but can only change for the better with DNRC (and Montana’s Land Board – whom Montanans get to select) in charge. Anyone with eyes and a brain visiting state trust lands – I suggest Pig Farm/Kuhns and both Spencer units for your examination – has to realize that Montana DNRC does fantastic work in terms of habitat, safety and economic outcomes. Period.

Even if Montana saw some big fires in the short run, rather than leave dead trees to rot, merchantable wood would be timely salvaged, with sale proceeds plowed back into rapid replanting of the next forest.

Ranchers would see their grazing fees increase. Pure cow flop. Private land grazing costs around $20-23 per AUM (animal unit, basically a cow/calf pair) in Montana according to USDA, with Montana’s state trust minimum being about $6.12/AUM, with a relatively few competitive leases bringing fees about 80 percent of the private rate. So the federal monthly grazing fee of $1.35/AUM (snarlingly protected by Western congresscritters) seems dirt cheap.

But Greens won’t admit “cheap” federal fees come with a huge downside of risk. Litigation all across the West has given federal AUMs a bad habit of disappearing at the worst possible moment – becoming unavailable at any price, often permanently. Would savvy ranchers pay more for predictability? Gladly.

Recreation access would decrease. Absolute tommyrot. On federal ground, access for everything, except the most-politically-correct recreation, currently stinks. While state-land recreation access is not THAT much better today, it’s mostly worth the 10 bucks. Further, the Land Board could improve recreation access even more if Montanans encouraged them to.

Payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) would go away. Deflectionist sludge. First of all, PILT cash is chumpola changeola: $28 million statewide in 2014 on 30 million acres. The annual amount per acre of PILT? In Montana, it runs from 27 cents in Petroleum County to $2.53 per acre in Custer County. What’s the property tax on your acres of paradise, kids?

Second, Greens have entered an unholy alliance with non-Western, urban “budget hawks” to eliminate PILT entirely, with recent years seeing repeated near-death experiences for funding.

PILT is a sop – but Montana revenue shares with county governments won’t be.

Lands would be sold off in massive chunks. Utter hooey. Yes, there HAVE been limited bargain sales of state ground to the politically favored, like in Whitefish. But the larger trend of Montana’s state land transactions through the Land Board shows government buying hundreds of thousands of overpriced acres from the private sector.

Montana will go broke managing new trust lands. Oh, like the Feds aren’t already broke? The fact is, DNRC state trust lands make money for Montana education – not much, but unlike the Feds, DNRC pays its freight. If Montana has the chance to buy productive lands now held hostage to lousy federal policy at fair market value, might we make it a success?

Heck yes – which is why Greens can’t stand the idea.

This article was originally published in the Flathead Beacon.

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