A recent survey of gubernatorial candidates shows that Republicans in the race are split when it comes to public land issues.
On Tuesday, a day or so after Montanans received their mail-in ballots, the Wild Montana Action Fund published its gubernatorial voter guide comparing the five candidates based upon answers to 13 questions.
Only one of the three Republican candidates – Tim Fox – responded to the questionnaire. So the organization perused news stories to find instances where the other two candidates made their positions known and used those as the candidates’ answers.
The Wild Montana Action Fund is a sister organization of the Montana Wilderness Association, which seeks to “protect Montana’s wilderness heritage, quiet beauty, and outdoor traditions, now and for future generations.”
Ted Brewer, Wild Montana Action Fund spokesman, said the group would expand the voters guide to include other races before June 2. But the race for governor is key to public lands because the governor sits on the Montana Land Board, can veto legislation and can speak out on public land issues.
Gov. Steve Bullock made the defense of public land one of his main issues, repeatedly saying public land wouldn’t be sold off, “not on my watch.”
The questionnaire focuses on Montana’s public lands, conservation and outdoor heritage. As recent polls have shown, those are issues that many Montanans support, regardless of political affiliation. Fox supports many of the same issues as the two Democrats, Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams.
But two Republican candidates – Greg Gianforte and Al Olszewski – have regularly indicated they don’t share those values.
While only Olszewski supports transferring federal land to the state outright, both he and Gianforte support transferring management of federal land. And when it comes to state land, both Gianforte and Olszewski don’t appear to want more.
The Habitat Montana program provides money from hunting and fishing license fees for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to buy land or conservation easements that preserve wildlife habitat. The program can be helpful to landowners who use the conservation easements to earn some extra money and the land benefits hunters and wildlife.
Popular with sportsmen, the program has often been a target in the state Legislature for those unhappy with other FWP programs. For example, ranchers unhappy with the 2012 transplant of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation lobbied their legislators to hamper Habitat Montana funding. Others never liked the idea of Montana creating more state land.
Fox, Williams and Cooney said, if elected governor, they would be willing to veto state legislation that threatened Habitat Montana funding or reduced public land access.
Gianforte sides with those who don’t want Habitat Montana money buying more land. In fact, he appears unsupportive of buying any new land for state parks, fishing access sites or recreation areas. No information could be found for Olszewski’s stand.
The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund uses royalties from offshore oil drilling to buy public land and parks. In Montana, LCWF money has financed the majority of the state’s fishing access sites and the sale of Plum Creek Timber land in the Swan and Blackfoot valleys to the U.S. Forest Service.
Currently, a number of land and conservation-easement deals in Montana are waiting for LWCF funding. Otherwise, the land could be forever lost to private buyers as more out-of-state landowners seek to buy their piece of Montana.
Fox and the two Democrats support full funding of the LWCF at $900 million a year while Gianforte has voted both for and against LCWF as a Congressional representative.
The one issue where Fox broke with Williams and Cooney was related to oil and gas leases.
Both Fox and Gianforte said they wouldn’t require oil and gas companies to do more mitigation or reclamation to preserve critical wildlife habitats, such as mule deer migration routes in southeastern Montana.
Fox also supports allowing oil and gas companies to buy cheap leases created when no one bids on a lease in a Bureau of Land Management auction.
In noncompetitive leasing, any company can anonymously request a BLM parcel be put up for auction. If no one submits a bid, after the auction, the parcel is made available at a rock-bottom rate – $1.50 an acre – to anyone who requests it. This practice is increasing as the BLM proposes more leases at its quarterly auctions.
Conservation groups say this allows oil and gas companies to bypass the public bidding process to get leases that they then lock up for 10 years. Instead, conservationists say, the process should change so that any parcel without a bid should stay public.
There is no information on where Gianforte or Olszewski stand on noncompetitive bidding.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.