Opinion: Montana Legislature Lacks Land Ethic

This week marks the halfway point of the 63rd Legislature. As that milestone blows past us like a half-bent mile marker on a poorly patrolled Montana highway, examining the progress so far proves very telling.

If one thing has become painfully obvious, it is the startling lack of a land ethic informing our legislators. Both this and the 2011 session have contained slews of bills designed to weaken access to public lands, damage the integrity of our wildlife populations, and privatize our rights to a clean environment in favor of industry profit.

And let’s be clear: Only one party consistently opposes reasonable solutions to many of these problems. The most recent example of the GOP’s unyielding opposition is the failure of House Bill 235, known as the “corner crossing bill.”

Sponsored by Missoula Rep. Ellie Hill, HB 235 would have let members of the public cross from one parcel of public land to another where two corners meet. On its face, this was an eminently practical solution to a very real problem in Montana.

Anyone who’s spent time hunting or fishing realizes that significant chunks of public land are often locked up behind small parcels of private land. Hill’s bill presented a pragmatic workaround that could have opened up thousands of acres with no costly land purchases by the state, and it enjoyed overwhelming support among sportsmen.

Corner Crossing Rally
On Monday, Feb. 18, sportsmen crowded the Montana Capitol in support of House Bill 235, which would have allowed corner crossings on public land. Photo by Eliza Wiley/Independent Record

Of course, the GOP united in opposition, with co-sponsor Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, even resorting to obfuscatory blatherings about abandoning the bill because this is “not a democracy.” Instead, Kerns believes he is duty-bound to uphold our “constitutional republic” in the face of 170,000 sportsmen and for the benefit of 500 private landowners.

He then makes the incredibly uncompelling argument that by stepping across an “infinitesimal corner of private land,” sportsmen would be trespassing in the owner’s airspace, based on his interpretation of Montana Supreme Court cases. (Later on in an explanatory blog post, Kerns points out that both landowners and sportsmen are being used as pawns by a tyrannical federal government and are both “about to be squashed.”)

Instead, Republicans have thrown their support behind HB 404, a bill that purports to fund block management programs in order to increase hunter access. Block management programs give landowners financial compensation in exchange for opening up their lands to the public for hunting or fishing.

HB 404’s dirty little secret, however, is that it robs money from habitat protection and acquisition programs and redirects them to block management programs. The block management program has been successful and deserves its own funding. But, as Alex Sakariassen argues in the Missoula Independent, the GOP proposes paying “private landowners for permission to access public land, using money that would normally go toward protecting the very resource sportsmen want access to.”

The assault on wild places doesn’t stop there. GOP members have a host of other bills that would undermine the conservation ethic for which so many Montanans have fought so hard.

Senate Bill 143, sponsored by Sen. Jon Brenden, R-Scobey, would institute a no-tolerance policy for wild bison anywhere in the state, while Brenden’s SB 237 would prohibit Fish, Wildlife and Parks from purchasing any additional land over five acres for hunting and fishing. To top that off, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, wants to give oil and gas companies a tax break that would cost the state $10.9 million over the next four years — at a time when their profits are already at record highs.

As Jim Posewitz, noted Montana hunter and philosopher, argued in a guest column for the Helena Independent Record, we enjoy such phenomenal outdoor opportunities today because of the persistence of our forebears. Fifty years ago, the Legislature passed the first Stream Preservation Act, renewed two years later with only a single vote against and signed into law by a “conservative governor with a conservation ethic.”

One hundred years ago, the Legislature designated the Sun River Game Preserve, after our wildlife had nearly been extirpated by commercial overhunting. But now we celebrate the wild lands of the Rocky Mountain Front.

Perhaps then, it’s instructive to look at who makes up our “citizen legislature.” Farmers and ranchers account for roughly 5 percent of Montana’s population and employ around 8 percent of the state. Yet, they make up at least half of the Senate Fish and Game Committee, half the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, and at least a third of the total House.

While farming and ranching are deeply embedded into Montana’s character, it is unacceptable for them to continue to propagate legislation that undermines an equally important aspect of our state: blue-ribbon trout streams, autumns afield surrounded by abundant game and a deserved moniker as the last best place.

Instead of designating the Code of the West the official state code, as Senate President Jim Peterson proposed during the 2011 session, perhaps the Legislature should work to cultivate a responsible conservation ethic