Public lands hang heavy over Western governors meeting in Whitefish

Governors from across the West meet in Whitefish for the annual Western Governors Association meeting. (Courtesy photo)

Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday welcomed governors from across the West to Montana for the annual Western Governors Association meeting, one that will cover everything from cyber security to childhood hunger.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is also slated to deliver a keynote address on Tuesday. Several outdoors groups have scheduled a simultaneous rally to encourage Zinke to protect public lands and national monuments.

Bullock said that despite the political differences of Western governors, cooperation is possible when resolving challenging issues, including those related to public lands.

“I’m confident that as governors from both sides of the aisle, we can show the rest of the nation that when we work together in a bipartisan way, we can advance meaningful work to benefit the public good, on everything from trade to infrastructure and natural resource management,” said Bullock, a Democrat.

Governors in attendance include Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota; Matt Mead of Wyoming; Brian Sandoval of Nevada; Gary Herbert of Utah; David Ige of Hawaii; Doug Burgum of North Dakota; John Hickenlooper of Colorado; Butch Otter of Idaho; and Ralph Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands.

During the three-day conference, governors will participate in public discussions on critical issues facing the West. Among them, Bullock will moderate a discussion regarding his central policy initiative, the “Western Governors National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.”

“Responsibly managing our Western forests and rangelands is a vexing concern for anyone who loves the West,” said Bullock. “From private landowners to conservation advocates to the agricultural and forest industries that provide jobs, food and homes for our residents, we all want to see these landscapes sustainably managed.”

As the conference kicked off on Monday, the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities launched its own “Monuments to America” tour.

Joined by Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the group sought to tell Zinke that eliminating or shrinking national monuments is a dangerous plan.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said no president has ever taken such action. Earlier this month, Zinke proposed significantly reducing the borders of a Utah national monument.

“Although Secretary Zinke likes to talk about following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, his actions so far make it clear his real role model is James Watt, the Interior Secretary who promised only to ‘drill more, mine more, and cut more’ across America’s public lands,” said Rokala. “We’re here in Whitefish to call on him to protect the Upper Missouri River Breaks, along with all monuments in the West, and recognize the economic value these monuments have to all Americans.”

Muhlfeld sought to deliver a similar message, saying Whitefish has benefited from protecting public lands. Working with state and federal partners, along with private owners, the community has conserved thousands of acres of forests in and around Whitefish, he said.

“These projects have secured the public’s access to recreation, protected our viewshed and municipal water supply, while at the same time allowing for sustainable forest management that keeps Montanans working in our forests and in our mills,” said Muhlfeld. “As a friend of Ryan Zinke, I urge him to respect and protect America’s public lands in Montana and across the country. Montana’s economic future depends on it.”