Transfer of Public Lands now supported by most Montanans
By Marjorie Haun
With federal control of Montana’s public lands growing more contentious due to questionable decisions by the feds, a majority of residents are now looking to an on-site manager.
A recent survey conducted by the University of Montana and Stanford University found that a clear majority of Montana residents now support transferring some public lands, which are now controlled by the federal government, to the state. The poll shows that local control is now favored by 59 percent of those surveyed.
The Rural West Conference Montana Survey asks Montana residents about key social and political factors, as well as how leaders and policy affect both urban and rural economies. In February of this year, 923 adults were questioned about the state’s foremost issues. The survey shows that Montanans favor state control of resource development, and also want public lands to be used for wilderness and outdoor recreation.
Those surveyed indicated that a majority of Montanans believe that “[t]he federal government owns too much land in Montana and should transfer some of it to the state.” Small town residents are most supportive of transferring public lands to state control, at 63 percent. Rural residents support the transfer by 59 percent, and urban residents, still a majority, are at 55 percent.
Protection of wildlife, increased recreational access, and development of farms and ranches were cited as important facets of public lands policy by respondents.
Montana’s largest minority group is composed of individuals belonging to various Native American Tribes. This survey indicates a strong preference, 78 percent, for giving those tribes the freedom to repurchase “ancestral lands that the tribes no longer own, for development and recreation.”
Montana residents care deeply about their state, its natural resources and beauty, as well as economic development. According to this new survey, most believe state and local control is the best way to create jobs while protecting those things that set Montana apart as a wild and beautiful place.
Brent Mead, of the Montana Policy Institute, said of the survey that he “was not surprised at all” by the results, and cited his rationale. He said the survey is consistent with what he calls the “Hierarchy of Trust in Government.” “There is support for local government which cuts across all ideologies,” said Mead. “You’re more likely to know your city councilors and county commissioners than Washington D.C. bureaucrats. Montanans are not going to trust D.C. over Helena.”
According to Mead, the small discrepancy between rural and urban support for the transfer of public lands, (TPL) is also somewhat predictable. He explained, “Broadly true is the fact that the further removed you are from the public lands in question, the more likely you are to want it governed in a hand’s-off fashion.” This aligns with the narrative used by supporters of TPL that urban rule-makers in a city 2,000 miles away from the public lands under their control, make poor managers at best. Mead continued, “When you’re living in an urban environment, far away from the lands themselves, it’s easy to get caught up in a romantic ideal.”
The transfer of public lands from federal to state management is not a new idea, but a great deal of misinformation has been spread about both its legality and its implications. As public lands issues are increasingly demystified for the public, transferring to local control is becoming increasingly popular. It is neither a sell-off nor privatization of public lands, but a simple transfer from federal to state control. Federal public lands simply become state public lands to be managed according to policies formulated by elected representatives within each state.
Federal overreach and politically-driven policies are being felt by more and more people in Western states. Many Montanans live in small towns and rural regions, and have an innate understanding that Washington D.C. policies are neither a practical nor just in their state. Now more than ever, the people of Montana are making it known that they trust local government over the federal government to protect their public lands, while also pursuing responsible economic development.