By Monica J. Lindeen, Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, Office of the Montana State Auditor
There has been a lot of discussion in Montana recently about public lands and whether the state should pursue taking over ownership of national forests and other federal lands. As a member of Montana’s Board of Land Commissioners, the body charged with managing our state lands including, presumably, any federal lands moved to state ownership, I strongly oppose any such takeover.
Public lands — both state and federal — play a key role in the economic and cultural life of Montanans. Ranchers depend on both state and federal grazing leases for healthy pasture. Communities in all corners of Montana, especially those around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, rely heavily on tourists drawn to these public treasures. Every summer, more Montana children than we can count cast their bobbers into lakes in the Custer National Forest, the Flathead National Forest, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and a long list of other federal lands in our state.
Combined, about 25 million acres of federal lands are found inside the borders of our state. Management of these lands is not always perfect, nor does it please every Montanan, but I believe transferring these lands, and the enormous cost of maintaining them, would create far more problems for Montanans and our state government than any such transfer could solve.
Access. Outdoor recreation is more than fun for Montanans. It is our identity and the economic engine of our tourist economy. That engine runs on access to public lands and it is far from certain that a takeover of these lands by the state would maintain the access Montanans and their customers currently enjoy. Protecting current access while millions of acres of land are moved between federal and state agencies would be a challenge, even with the best of intentions. I am not willing to take a gamble on this; the jobs of thousands of Montanans are at stake.
Cost. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has struggled to come up with a true cost of maintaining an additional 25 million acres of land. One recent estimate exceeded $500 million. I don’t need to tell you that Montana does not have an extra half a billion dollars lying around. In reality, we lack even a small fraction of the resources necessary to maintain federal lands even in the shape they are currently in. State government would have to dramatically grow our bureaucracy to keep up with the enormous task of managing 25 million additional acres. For perspective, that’s a land mass as large as Scotland – plus 5.5 million more acres. I have grave concerns Montana would be forced to sell some of these public lands in order to pay for the cost of managing them, forever losing access to a part of our outdoor heritage.
I am proud of the Montana Land Board’s track record in properly maintaining Montana’s 5 million acres of state lands. But, I do not believe that growing our responsibility by 500 percent, with no obvious source of commensurate funding, would create anything other than a disaster.
That’s why I wrote a letter to Montana’s congressional delegation letting them know where I stand and asking them to protect our outdoor heritage and access to public lands, while at the same time ensuring Montana is not strapped with the enormous and impossible fiscal burden of attempting to manage federal lands. I can’t support setting Montana up for failure and I would encourage all of Montana’s elected leaders to join me in asking our congressional delegation to resist such efforts.