By David Crisp

Supporters of public lands who filled a room at the Crowne Plaza in Billings on Wednesday were warned not to ignore rural people who feel threatened by federal land ownership.

“I’m very concerned about what I see in this country right now,” said John Sepulvado of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Unless people listen to each other, he warned, controversy over the transfer of federal lands to state management will continue to fester.

He was speaking at “This Land Is Our Land: A Forum on Protecting Montana’s Public Lands.” The forum, sponsored by the Center for Western Priorities in Denver, drew about 75 people to the 20th floor of the Crowne Plaza, most of them supportive of retaining federal control of public lands.

That attitude is typical of Montanans, said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the center. She described a survey this month that showed that only 19 percent of Montanans agree that there is too much public land in Montana. Republicans were most likely to think Montana has too much public land, but even GOP voters agreed by nearly a 3-to-1 margin that Montana does not have too much.

Large majorities of Montanans also support the state’s stream access law, and 63 percent said they would be less likely to support a candidate who favors selling public lands to reduce the budget deficit.

Democrats and Republicans split widely on fracking and traditional energy. Fewer than a third of Democrats had favorable attitudes toward coal, mining and oil companies, while three-fourths of Republicans did. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans supported fracking to extract gas and oil while only 22 percent of Democrats did.

The survey by Purple Strategies interviewed 600 likely voters in Montana between June 11 and 15. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Most of those at the forum raised their hands when asked if they think the federal government is doing a good job of managing public lands, but Sepulvado warned that their attitude is at odds with many rural landowners who see their livelihoods slipping away.

He used the example of Wallowa, a town of 800 people in the northeastern corner of Oregon with a declining population, few jobs and no money.

“They’re watching their town die,” Sepulvado said. Despite its lack of funds, the town is trying to overcome bureaucratic and congressional inaction by spending money to support the American Lands Council, a nonprofit group that advocates for transferring federal lands to state control.

“There’s a frustration that nothing is happening,” Sepulvado said.

Other speakers, including some in the audience, sounded similar warnings. Ron Moody of Lewistown, a former Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioner, said the strongest constituents for protecting public lands are in urban areas. But if rural residents can no longer make a living off their land, it will be sold to people who will be “much harder to get along with,” he said.

Even Randy Newberg, host and producer of the “Fresh Tracks” program on the Sportsmen Channel and a strong advocate of public lands, agreed that many people feel abandoned by the political system.

“These people cannot be economic casualties,” he said.

In some cases, opposition to federal management of public lands goes to extremes. Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting was an on-the-ground reporter during a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in January and February.

Occupiers argued that the federal government had taken over land through an unconstitutional act of President Franklin Roosevelt, basing their case on constitutional provisions that appear to govern acquisition of land to build the national capital and that govern the admission of new states to the union.

While the occupiers’ arguments may have been hard to follow, they appealed to Americans who may not have supported the occupation but were sympathetic with its goals, she said.

But others argued that retaining public lands is essential to Montana’s economic future. Ryan Callaghan of First Lite, an Idaho-based company that makes hunting gear, said his company could not exist without public lands to provide hunting access for customers.

Newberg, the TV host, faulted Congress for failing to do its job to protect public lands. Transferring federal lands to the states would just take problems Congress refuses to fix and pass them to states without the resources to manage them.

“State transfer is a head fake,” he said. “It is a smoke screen.”

Taking away public lands, he said, is anti-hunter, anti-hiking, anti-public recreation and even anti-American.

But Sepulvado, asked why the media cover extremists such as the Malheur occupiers, responded with a question of his own: “Why did you read about it?”

Americans are constantly putting issues into us vs. them divisions, he said.

“There’s something wrong when we don’t want to hear what other people have to say,” he said. “To me, that’s un-American.”

Another member of the audience asked if letting states manage public lands would spur competition that might produce better management. Brad Sauer, a rancher near Colstrip, said the most successful competitors would be those with the deepest pockets.

Sepulvado said there is no way states could afford to manage those lands and would instead sell them off.

“There’s no competition,” he said. “There’s just cannibalism.”

Sauer gave a brief overview of the history of public lands laws and ownership but warned that new approaches are needed to solve current problems.

“The thinking that got us into this mess is not going to get us out,” he said.

Mike Penfold, who moderated the forum, defended the performance of federal employees but said their ability to manage lands well has been hurt by budget cuts.

“Agencies are horribly strapped,” he said, “and I think purposefully strapped.” Penfold is the former state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

At the start of the forum, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., delivered a video message to forum participants. Representatives of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., read prepared statements generally expressing support for public lands but calling for improved management to stave off fires, disease and litigation.

In another development, John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association in Billings, announced at the meeting that a district judge had just ruled in favor of the group in a dispute over access to the Ruby River from a bridge at Seyler Lane. The PLWA has been fighting for years with James Cox Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, over access to the river.

The latest issue concerned the width of the road easement. The judge held that the easement should be 47 feet wide, Gibson said, a width that he called a victory for public lands.

This article originally appeared in Last Best News.