“There are no losers to what we are going to propose,” said Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton, a founding member of American Lands Council (ALC).
“Let me be really clear about this,” he said as he explained why he has taken a leadership role in compelling congress to transfer federal lands to the states. “We are not AGAINST anybody. We are FOR managing the resources so we don’t actually burn our forests to the ground, destroy our watersheds, or kill millions of animals in the process. We are FOR not putting more pollution into the environment — than all our industrial processes combined — because of mismanagement and the wildfires that are occurring.
"We are FOR having some family sustaining jobs that come as we manage the natural resources and provide a benefit not only for the animals and the environment, but for people as well. We are FOR being energy independent as a nation, and as states. We are FOR being financially independent as a nation, as a state, as counties, and private citizens.”
The American Lands Council was formed two years ago by Heaton and a number of county commissioners and state legislators in Utah and Nevada to protect public access, provide better environmental health, and restore economic productivity on federal lands. Today, ALC has attracted support from elected officials in every western state as the idea of shifting to state based public land management is increasingly viewed as the only way to ensure public lands are managed with greater care than we see coming from Washington DC these days.
All the western states are feeling the pain of decades of declining federal stewardship. For some, the turning point occurred during the government “shutdown” last October. Remember when Congress didn’t want to fund Obamacare and President Obama responded by deeming all of our nation’s public lands “non-essential”? Federal golf courses and health clubs were kept open, but federal agents were dispatched to blockade open air monuments and evict hunters and hikers from the back country, bringing tourism, recreation, and resource industries to a grinding halt across the country.
I don’t think you would ever see a Montana Governor kick all the law abiding hikers and hunters off Montana’s public lands. His career would be over. But Washington DC got away with it. When the feds shut down all the federally controlled public lands in America, they revealed precisely how little they care. It was states and counties that stepped up to re-open the lands. We get it. Public lands matter to us.
During Montana’s legislative study of federal land management, we identified the most serious problems on federal lands today, chief among them are continuous reductions in public access, rapidly declining forest health, extreme wildfire fuel build up, lack of economic productivity, and lack of accountability out of Washing DC.
Although our study was supposed to consider all lawful options to correct the problems, some Democrat committee members would not allow discussion on the subject of transferring federal lands to the state. While our bi-partisan committee received some testimony on the issue, we were never really allowed to give this subject the due diligence it deserves. Naysayers suppressed the conversation by asserting Montanans would foolishly sell all the land if we were put in charge.
However, in closing remarks of our final legislative interim meeting, we had a breakthrough when a Democrat Senator pointed out that safeguards could be put into place to ensure transferred federal lands would remain in public status. He suggested that perhaps Montana could acquire 1% of the federal land in our state each year for 100 years. Eventually we began to see bi-partisan agreement that transferring control of federal lands to the state may be possible if handled correctly.
That breakthrough was preceded by incredibly enlightening testimony from Mr. Martin Goldney, Chief Negotiator for the Northwest Territories (NWT) of Canada who described how and why Canada recently transferred control of federal lands to the smaller, more nimble territorial government.
It took ten years of hard work to negotiate the deal, but this past spring both the Northwest Territories and Canada achieved a win-win arrangement that is responsive to local people and financially beneficial to all parties.
In this arrangement, the federal government decided to pay the local government of the Northwest Territories to manage the public lands and resources. The Northwest Territories hired all the federal employees who had been working within the region, thus ensuring no loss of jobs and a continuation of related expertise. The Northwest Territories is giving the federal government 50% of the proceeds from natural resource revenues from these lands, and local tribal governments will receive a large share as well.
The big advantage is that land management decisions will be made by people who live in the affected region rather than a distant and somewhat disconnected federal government. “When decisions are made by people closer to the subject matter, the decisions tend to be better,” Goldney noted.
I couldn’t agree more. Here in America, if we endeavor to work constructively across party lines, we too can bring forth tremendous improvements in public land management to benefit people and the environment. It is time to begin earnest, fact based discussions and credible feasibility analysis on transfer of public lands. Suppression of information and fear mongering has got to stop. If we are thoughtful and agree to work together toward real solutions, there need not be any losers.
Thank you, and God bless you and the land we love.
*Senator Jennifer Fielder*
Montana State Senate – District 7