Preemptive: Missoula, Deer Lodge counties voice support for federal public lands

Calling it a preemptive move against powerful special interests, Missoula County Commissioners have joined Anaconda-Deer Lodge County in signing a resolution recognizing the importance of federal public lands, and the role they play in supporting local communities.

In doing so, the two Montana counties join a growing movement across Western states to lift an ardent voice in opposition to special interest groups and conservative lawmakers looking to sell or transfer federal public lands to local ownership.

Such efforts continue to “swirl around us,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Wednesday while noting the significance of the county’s resolution.

“Whether it’s local entities or continuing discussions in Washington, D.C., with certain members of Congress, they’re suggesting all Western counties – lumping us into one homogeneous category – are somehow in support of transferring the management of federal public lands,” Strohmaier said. “Those efforts are still underway, and it seems like a good time to stake our policy in Missoula County.”

The resolution joins Missoula County to a growing coalition of Western counties, elected leaders and conservation groups pushing back against possible transfers or sales of public land.

Of the 64 million acres given to the 11 Western states at statehood, more than 25 million have been sold, according to one hunting organization. If history is any indication, federal public lands would be sold and closed to public access if transferred to state management.

That includes 27 million acres of publicly owned national forests and BLM land in Montana. Support for the preservation of federal public lands includes Montana’s congressional delegation, two counties and a number of conservation groups, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“Thirty counties and municipalities in the West have passed resolutions or written letters in opposition to the notion that our public lands should be given away or sold off,” Joel Webster, the organization’s western lands director, said Wednesday. “We applaud Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Missoula counties for taking a firm stand on behalf of our public lands and outdoor heritage, and we encourage other Montana counties to follow suit.”

Nearly 70 percent of Missoula County is forested, and the majority of those lands are managed by federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

In their resolution, commissioners said they were committed to conserving land resources within the county and remain supportive of efforts to restore and maintain healthy forests.

“Continued public ownership and management of these lands will ensure stewardship for the benefit of all, protected access to these lands, and continued economic benefits,” the county stated in its resolution.

Anaconda-Deer Lodge County was first out of the gate in stating its support for federal public lands in Montana. Commissioners there sent a letter to other state counties in October urging them to oppose any effort to claim, transfer, take over or sell federal public lands to state or local governments.

In 2015, a total of 37 individual bills were proposed in 11 Western states, each aimed at turning federal public lands over to the states. While the bills were defeated at the local level, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County commissioners say special interests and lobbyists continue to push the effort in Congress.

“If federal public lands are transferred to individual states, the lands will be managed strictly for revenue generation,” Anaconda-Deer Lodge County commissioners wrote. “The idea of land transfer is short-sighted and ill-conceived and distracts from the constructive work of addressing how Montanans should properly manage (their) natural resources.”

While Strohmaier noted that some believe the federal government has too much sway over land management, such arguments attempt to break the debate into black-and-white issues while neglecting the bigger picture.

Recreation on federal public lands alone supports $646 billion in spending every year across the West, supporting 6.1 million jobs and $80 billion in tax revenue, according to recent economic studies.

It is now one of the region’s largest economic engines.

“We also need to recognize that here in Montana, recreation has risen to the top of heap as the economic driver in the state,” Strohmaier said. “People aren’t flocking here to see fields of tree stumps or mining slag. In supporting this resolution, we also recognize that federal land managers have a difficult job, and we want to support them.”