Anti-public lands bills appear in Montana Legislature, but fewer than before

With two weeks to go in the Montana Legislature until all general bills have to be moved to the other chamber or die, a few proposals to put limits on public lands have finally made their appearance.

Montana conservation groups are rallying their supporters to oppose one bill that passed out of committee Monday and is headed to the House Floor.

On Feb. 8, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, revived one of former Sen. Jennifer Fielder’s bills from 2015, which would keep Montana from selling any federal land transferred to the state in the future.

“If public lands are truly public, this should be an easy vote,” Gunderson said in the hearing.

Jennifer Fielder is the executive director of the Utah-based American Lands Council, which has pushed state legislation for public land transfer in the past. But since founder Ken Ivory resigned from the Utah Legislature in August 2019 and moved on to work for a private corporation, the organization has lost some steam and funding.

Fielder now sits on the Montana Public Service Commission after terming out of the Legislature.

The bill seems simple at first, but it could set a bad precedent in the unlikely event the federal government gave land to the state, according to the five opponents of the bill. No one spoke in favor of the bill.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock didn’t mince words, calling HB 320 “an attempt to being to facilitate land transfer.”

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said the bill could impinge on tribes’ authority to manage any such land within one of Montana’s eight reservations.

Montana Wilderness Association spokesman Noah Marion said most Montanans oppose the transfer of federal lands to the state or the sale of large state land parcels to individuals. That’s backed up by the latest Conservation in the West poll, released two weeks ago.

But if Gunderson’s bill were to pass, it would keep the state from selling smaller parcels to add to the land bank, allowing the purchase of other property later to help consolidate public land.

“Smaller-scale sales make sense in some cases so we should leave that option on the table,” Marion said.

On Monday, Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, echoed Gevock that HB 320 was a prelude to the transfer of federal land to the states. And not all public land is equal. Gunderson criticized federal ownership because some Forest Service roads have been closed to motorized access. But Marler pointed out that state land is often leased to private individuals, removing it from public access completely.

Rep. Paul Fielder, Jennifer’s husband, predictably backed the bill. He read Montana’s 1889 Enabling Act and zeroed in on sections about unappropriated state trust lands owed Montana by the federal government.

“I’d be more worried about the federal government disposing of lands in Montana,” Paul Fielder said.

But Paul has nothing to worry about, because the Bureau of Land Management announced a few weeks ago that the process to transfer the remaining 5,816 acres to Montana is complete and will be finalized this spring.

In spite of having no proponents, the bill is headed to the House Floor after passing the House Natural Resources committee on almost a party-line vote, 9-6, on Monday. Rep. Brian Putnam of Kalispell was the lone Republican to vote no.

Under the Biden administration, Montana is unlikely to receive any more land from the federal government. But Gunderson made it clear he was preparing for the long game.

“Another legislator in the next session, maybe four, five, six sessions from now, will bring a bill to amend even further what I’m asking for,” Gunderson said. “Are we going to transfer 25 million acres (of federal land) tomorrow? No. It’s probably going to be piecemeal.”

Public land proponents celebrated at last week’s news that the Department of the Interior rescinded a Nov. 9 Secretarial Order that would have allowed state and local governments to block the federal government from buying conservation lands if the Land and Water Conservation Fund was used. But, a few Western politicians have been working to create restrictions at the state level.

In Montana, Rep. Mike Lang, R-Malta, submitted a bill draft on New Year’s Eve that would require the Parks Department to get approval from the governor or county commissions for the acquisition of land, water or other interest bought with LWCF money.

However, Lang is running out of time. The draft was returned for his review on Jan. 23, but three weeks later, the bill has yet to be finalized. Only a week remains to introduce new general bills for this session.

Lang does have another bill ready to introduce that would prohibit nonprofit corporations from purchasing agricultural land. The legislation appears to be aimed at preventing the American Prairie Reserve from being more land in eastern Montana.

In Arizona, state Rep. Mark Finchem reintroduced a bill this month that goes farther than Lang’s, according to a bill review by E&E News. It would mandate that the governor and state Legislature approve the transfer of “any Arizona lands” to a federal agency “if the transfer negatively affects state or local property tax rolls.”

Since then, Finchem has run into trouble for having attended the Jan. 6 Trump rally that resulted in violence at the U.S. Capitol.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.