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Another rebellion on horizon

If you are old enough you might remember the infamous "Sage Brush Rebellion" of the 1970s and '80s, when a movement sprang up in the West, determined to liquidate federal land holdings and return everything to the states and individuals. The movement fizzled but it is back again, courtesy of the Utah-based American Lands Council.

In Montana the movement is bolstered by a handful of Republicans who are displeased with management of public lands by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They point to vast expanses of beetle-killed trees and insist that the states could do better.

Well, I am no fan of federal agencies, but the notion that state agencies, like the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) could do a better job, is insane. The costs alone of fire suppression and defending myriad lawsuits against anti-logging groups would bankrupt the State of Montana. (DNRC estimates it would cost $500 million a year for the state to manage the 25 million acres of public land the state would magically inherit. Reservations, wilderness areas and national parks would be exempt.)

It is interesting that many of these same legislators have been adamant in the past about "no new net gains of public lands acquired by the state." Their refrain has been, "The state can't manage the land it has right now." Which is true. Some of the most mismanaged, overgrazed lands are sections leased to ranchers for grazing.

One important point overlooked by promoters of these land transfer schemes is grazing fees and recreational access. Ranchers currently pay about $1.50 an animal unit month (AUM) for grazing rights on federal land. The AUM rate is 10 times that much on state land!

Also, we hunters battled for years to get access rights to hunt on state lands and finally achieved that in 1995. However, one may only camp two days on state-owned lands before having to move camp. How'd you like to embark on a 10-day elk hunt and have to move camp every other day?

Another point to consider is one brought up by Don Allen, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Speaking at a 500-person rally in Helena this month he said, "Let's assume that the states can take over all of the federal lands. Let's assume that tomorrow the State of California controls all the land in its borders. How long before the anti-hunting organizations have a ballot initiative to outlaw regulated hunting in California? I give it five years or less."

This whole land transfer idea has been called unconstitutional by those who know the law far better than I do. I also take comfort knowing that Montana's Governor, Steve Bullock (D) certainly would veto any legislation ordering a transfer.

I also have confidence in the American people nationwide. Public land is their land too — it does not belong solely to the residents of western states. I imagine the residents of non-western states would have lots to say about a land transfer, and little of it would be positive.

It reminds me of the time about a dozen years ago when the Parks Division of Mont. Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to liquidate some small parcels of land that didn't provide quality wildlife habitat or access to fishing or hunting. It seemed to be an innocuous move, but like government agencies everywhere, FWP sought "public comment," holding public hearings statewide. It makes me smile to remember it: There was a firestorm of opposition to selling off the parcels! In 21 1/2 years of working for state wildlife agencies in three states, I never saw such an uproar! The Parks Division quietly abandoned its idea of a land transfer.

If this crazy idea of transferring federal lands to state ownership goes any further, I hope the American public gives it the same reception!

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