Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines came under a lot of fire two weeks ago from Montana conservation and outdoors-related interest groups after his vote two weeks ago in support of an amendment that could risk the transfer or sale of federal land. The amendment, brought up by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, authorizes the Senate to create a “reserve” fund relating to any legislative action that results in the transfer or sale of federal lands. It was passed by the Senate 51-49 on March 26, with Daines in favor and Sen. Jon Tester in opposition.
Although the amendment does not define federal lands to include national parks, monuments or preserves, many Montanans fear that this amendment is the first step in selling off Montana’s public lands that so many enjoy. According to the Billings Gazette, Sen. Jon Tester recently stated in an email, “This vote sent a strong message to the people of Montana that the threat of selling off our public lands is real.” Those in favor of the amendment continue to argue that it simply establishes a spot in the budget for federal land disposals, and in no way authorizes the large-scale transfer of federal lands. Many Montanans view Daines’ vote as a harsh surprise after he promised to always fight to keep Montana’s public lands.
The amendment essentially facilitates the transfer of federal lands into state control. However, Montana is required to use its lands in ways that generate revenue for the state. Therefore, this amendment sets the stage for the transfer of federal lands to the states, and the ultimate sale of those federal lands to individuals and corporations.
More than 500 Montanans attended a rally in Helena in February to let legislators know they strongly oppose efforts to transfer federal lands to the states. Mary Sexton, former Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director, spoke of the reasons why transferring federal lands to the state is risky. These reasons included the fact that the state would have to account for over $100 million a year in fire suppression costs, a price currently handled by the federal government, and the fact that ranchers would see a massive increase in public land grazing fees, where the federal government currently charges $1.50 per animal management unit while the state would charge $13 or more. Sexton’s arguments, along with the arguments of numerous other Montanans including Gov. Steve Bullock, made it very apparent that Montanans are not going to be complacent with legislation related to federal land transfer. After all, why should they be? At the rally in Helena, Gov. Steve Bullock was quoted saying, “I’m pleased to stand before you and say that as governor, I’ll do everything to ensure that wholesale transfers of public land will not occur. Not on my watch.”
Montanans love Montana because of the land. They love hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing and doing just about any other outdoor activity possible. And when they’re tired, they enjoy sitting back and enjoying the great beauty of it all. There are not many places left in the world where the land is more prevalent than the city, where there are more cows than people. And that’s why everyone refers to Montana as “the last best place.”
If Montana’s public lands were to be sold to wealthy individuals and corporations we might be forced to watch our favorite hiking trails and fishing spots turn into industrialized wastelands. Or perhaps we would see the rise of new luxury club resorts reserved for the rich and famous, at the expense of the great outdoors enjoyed by all. Either way, it’s safe to say that the privatization of public land is not in the best interests of all Montanans.
Although the meaning of Daines’ vote is somewhat washed out by technicalities, it is clear that Montanans are worked up about the threat of losing the lands they love. In addition to the rally in Helena, an anti-transfer petition accumulated more than 3,000 signatures before the rally even started. Regardless of what the vote means, it is clear that Daines must be very careful with how he handles federal land transfer legislation. According to Daines’ spokeswoman, Daines understands the importance of Montana’s treasured places for the state’s outdoor heritage, and continues to oppose selling off public lands. However, to many people, his recent vote on the Murkowski Amendment implies just the opposite.