Think the State of Montana is better at managing public lands than the Federal Government? Think again.
The National Wildlife Federation just released a report titled How Could Your Recreational Access Change if Federal Lands were Controlled by the States? The report details differences between state and federal management of public lands.
During the 1890s, Spring Prairie north of Kalispell was a favored stop for wagon and mule trains traveling the Fort Steele Trail. This important trail connected the Mullan Road near Missoula with the Tobacco Plains and the prosperous mining districts in British Columbia. Spring Prairie offered a large spring of clear water as well as plentiful grazing and timber and was an important resting point before the caravans entered the arduous, heavily timbered part of the northward journey.
By the Enabling Act of 1889, Montana was to be given sections 16 and 36 of every township within it’s borders when it became a state. The lands were to be held in trust by the state for public education. Spring Prairie was part of that bequest. Montana law requires state trust lands to be administrated to “secure the largest measure of legitimate and reasonable advantage to the state.” Today, due to this mandate to maximize revenues from state lands, Spring Prairie is mostly paved over with plans afoot in the near future to fill and pave the spring itself. Phase 4 of the development will put just over $100,000 a year into state coffers.
At statehood, Montana was given 5.9 million acres of school trust land. After selling off around 800,000 acres, today the State Land Board administers about 5.1 million acres. Those lands include 4.7 million acres under 9,000 agreements for crop and range leases throughout the state, 5,301 oil and gas, metalliferous and non-metalliferous mineral, coal, and sand and gravel leases, and 39 coal leases. The state sold 61.4 million board feet of timber from 780,000 acres of state lands in 2014. Since the state owns our riverbeds, Montana also leases 19,000 acres of riverbed and island tracts for oil and gas development. In 2014, Montana sold 4,093 acres of state trust land.
Until 1991, most of the leased lands were accessible only at the whim of the lessor. Today you can buy a State Lands Permit to access most state lands. About 1.3 million acres of Montana’s public lands are “landlocked” that is, they are surrounded by private parcels and not accessible by the public. One example is the section surrounded by Ted Turner’s 22,000-acre Bar None Ranch. Turner Enterprises leases 16,600 acres of public land in Montana. The area is technically open to public access, but the reality is there is no access across the private land unless you pay Mr. Turner’s Montana Hunting Company $14,000 to hunt on the “public” land.
If Montana were to take possession of all the BLM and U.S. Forest Service land in the state, they would gain about 25 million acres on which to maximize profits for the state. In 1999, the Montana State Legislature passed a law exempting many DNRC activities from MEPA compliance for “lease renewals” and certain other activities associated with trust lands management. If these lands were managed like state trust lands, much of your current access would be lost, or restricted. Much of the new land would necessarily have to be sold to the highest bidder to maximize profit for the state. You would have to buy a permit for lands you can now access for free. Some lands you can now access would be leased for commercial activities which would impair public access and impact wildland values. Virtually every decision on management of public lands would be based on what is best for the state revenue stream and not on what is best for the physical streams, forests and recreational values.
Spring Prairie has become an asphalt wasteland under state management to provide a modest boost to state coffers. Little oversight from overworked and understaffed state agencies would result in much the same fate for many currently open public lands in Montana if the current iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion is allowed to move forward with its profit-fueled ,corporate vision for public lands in our state.