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Perils of Proposing Public Parcel Plunder

Todd Tanner published a great piece in High Country News on the menace of recent Congressional legislation to promote the transfer and sale of public lands.

This is about power, plunder and money.  It’s about water, which is the source of all that power here in the West. And it’s about the fact that an awful lot of folks back in Washington want to privatize our federal lands.

Montana writer Hal Herring called the vote “an attempt to re-create our country, to vanquish forever the notion that we citizens can hold anything in common. It’s a new paradigm, where the majority of Americans are landless subjects with little recourse in the courts or political process.”

It’s a great piece and needs to be distributed widely, but it’s in another Western publication. That’s fine, and we need to see more of it, but we’re pretty much preaching to the choir. Westerners, by a wide margin oppose transferring our public lands to the states. I say we hit ’em where they live.

The deluge of letters we have seen recently supporting land transfer have all come, mainly, from a single source. The Washington, D.C. PR firm of Berman & Company, funded mostly by oil and gas money. The letters are written by Berman employee Will Coggin deceptively attacking western conservation organizations and promoting the sale of public lands to the highest bidder. So, maybe we should let Washington know just how we, as westerners, feel about the corporate smear campaign. I say, we of the Western persuasion, and especially members of slandered groups like Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, should blitz the D.C. newspapers with letters supporting our public lands and condemning corporate-funded, dark money propaganda.

I chose the Washington Post for my missive, but you could choose any popular D.C. publication. For the Post, you can send a letter to letters@washpost.com  Here are the rules:

What are the guidelines for letter submissions?
We prefer letters that are fewer than 200 words and take as their starting point an article or other item appearing in The Post. They may not have been submitted to, posted to or published by any other media. They must include the writer’s full name — anonymous letters and letters written under pseudonyms will not be considered. For verification purposes, they must also include the writer’s home address, e-mail address and telephone numbers. Writers should disclose any personal or financial interest in the subject matter of their letters. If sending e-mail, please put the text of the letter in the body and do not send attachments — they will not be read.

As an example, here’s my letter to the Post.

We, out here in the square states, continue to see a smooth, corporate-funded attack on our public lands. Frequent letters in our newspapers, written by corporate-funded shills and lobbyists from Washington D.C. PR firms, advocate for the transfer and sale of our communal property. We are drowning in the drool of energy, mining and timber companies who can’t wait to get their hands on our public resources and lock out all of us bumpkins who see the true value of lands held in common with every citizen of our country.

We see unwarranted attacks on conservation organizations such a Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who have done more to promote and protect our shared lands than all the lobbyists, lawyers and CEOs in D.C. combined. Our public lands provide clean air, clean water, hunting, fishing and recreation to all the good folks of our country. They are not simply assets on a spreadsheet to be pillaged at will.

I would like to suggest that you folks keep your corporate salivation on your side of the Potomac and quit exporting hate speech to the West. We will do whatever it takes to protect these lands for the good of all the citizens of our republic and you can rest assured that when you next decide to visit our nation’s great parks and public lands they will still be open, accessible to all, and they will be here waiting for you.

Legislative Canoodling

In his latest proclamation from the House floor, Speaker, Austin Knudsen holds forth on respect for the rules of “procedural maneuvering”. Yes, it appears there are rules.

He decries the passage of the Healthy Montana Act (SB405) as a “massive expansion of Obamacare in our state” and “medical welfare”. That’s all well and good and I’m sure that is his honest opinion. After all, he does support the process by which the bill was passed.

“I respect legislators who make decisions on policy for their constituents — that’s why they sent us here.”

But, it seems that what he doesn’t support is that bill was passed over his objections. Big bills, such as the Healthy Montana Act and the ratification of the the CSKT Water Compact (SB262) are passing the legislature over the objections of the Tea Party leadership and apparently that’s not seen as acceptable by a minority of members.

“A group of representatives who were upset that they weren’t getting their way used procedural maneuvering to sidestep the rules, rendering them basically meaningless. This group has decided that they will use any means necessary to get what they want even if it means breaking the rules. A civilized body should never resort to an “ends justifies the means” mentality.”

Respect for the rules is proper and right. We all live by mutually agreed to rules, but those rules can be changed by collective agreement. Yes, there was a certain amount of bending of the rules by both sides in these debates, but that seems to be the way the system works.

One important point seems to be overlooked by the Speaker. Both of these important bills were supported by a majority of Montana citizens and expressed through their duly-elected representatives. In votes of  54-42 and 53-47, a majority of House members consisting of both Democrats and Republicans were able to express their endorsement in our legislature. Rules are rules of course, but rules are not law. No amount of legislative canoodling, or political chicanery, by either side, was able to muzzle the voice of the people of the Treasure State and to me, that seems to be a good thing.

501 Don’t See Me

A rhetorical war is being quietly waged over the remaining natural resources in the American West. We have recently seen the battles play out in Congress, as they pass funding to help transfer federal lands to states and, of course, we have seen it in the legislative bodies of several western states, including Montana, where proposed bills to transfer federal lands to state control have been met with anger and vitriol by citizens groups.

The weapon of choice for both sides in this conflict for our public resources is the 501(c) section of the United States Internal Revenue Code. As originally conceived, section 501(c) allowed for the formation of not-for-profit advocacy organizations. It reduced the tax burden on cash-strapped citizens groups and allowed for non-disclosure of the names of donors to shield community-minded contributors from constant pleas for money from similar organizations.

In 2010, everything changed due to the decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In its decision in the Citizens United case, the Court held that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. That decision released corporate America to enter the public discourse with a vengeance never seen before and to do so anonymously. They could now use the vast financial resources of their stockholders to influence and change public policy to protect and enhance corporate profits.

The number of nonprofit organizations soared, growing by more than 30% between 2003 and 2013 and further, spending by groups who no longer had to disclose their funding sources grew exponentially.

nondisclosure

Center for Responsive Politics

 

 

Now, companies have been granted a way to pour unlimited money into causes that would disproportionately benefit their bottom line and they could do so using so called, “Dark Money” because they no longer have to reveal that funding for their positions came from the various business interests who would most benefit from changes in state and national policy.

501(c) groups funded by corporate profits make anonymous accusations against 501(c) environmental and groups who, likewise, don’t release their funding sources. In one of the more recent examples we see letters in local newspapers from someone named “Will Coggin”, reputed to be “director of research for the Environmental Policy Alliance.” In a letter published April 2 in the Helena Independent Record, and in other Montana papers, Mr. Coggins makes outrageous claims against some of the most popular environmental groups in Montana, accusing groups like Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership of “camouflaging their [anti-gun, anti-energy] efforts by manipulating the more politically conservative sportsmen community” and of being “Out-of-state radical environmentalists”.

One of the main attacks advocating for land transfer has been that states are more efficient in managing public lands because they make more money on their holdings. I guess I would agree that states charge more for use of public resources, but I would argue that there are many good reasons and advantages for the disparity. In the case of Montana, state law requires that state trust lands provide the maximum revenue possible. That is not true of federal holdings. In fact, in many cases federal agencies have kept lease and sale costs on their resources below market value for good reason. Federal timber has been sold below cost to keep lumber prices down during hard times. Lower prices are also used to subsidize local timber and mining companies to retain local jobs. When ranchers graze cattle on federal lands at lower prices, the cost for your hamburger remains affordable. Yes, we could charge more for the use of our resources, and in some cases we should, but in keeping prices affordable for rural folks, we keep our rural economies viable. So yes, the Feds could charge more as do most state agencies, but that means only an increase in commodity prices for us all and higher profits for producers.

Will Coggin is informed on these issues, but he has a corporate-driven agenda to promote. Camouflage would be something with which Mr. Coggin is intimately familiar. He, of course, doesn’t reveal that he is an employee of one of Washington D.C.s largest corporate lobbying firms headed by Richard Berman (dubbed “Dr. Evil” by CBS 60 Minutes). Berman has become a favorite hit man hired by corporations wanting to influence public policy without seeming to be connected to the effort. Berman has established hundreds of web sites and foundations, usually using 501(c)(3) organizational ambiguity, to anonymously flog corporate ambitions. In fact, the Environmental Policy Alliance, by which Mr. Coggin claims to be employed, is in fact a PR front group established by Berman & Co. Berman’s groups are funded by foundations created by business interests. The purposely named EPA claims to be a project of the “Center for Organizational Research & Education”, which itself morphed last year from the Berman-created “Center for Consumer Freedom” which was set up by Rick Berman to attack PETA and food safety advocates on behalf of restaurant interests.

It’s extremely easy to get lost trying to follow this bewildering web of fake advocacy groups and nonprofit foundations, but of course, that’s really the point. Let’s go just a bit further. The transfer of federal lands into state hands is being advocated primarily by oil, gas, timber and mining interests to make it easier for them to get their hands on our natural resources. And, of course, these same interests are large contributors to nonprofit “foundations” set up by Mr. Berman. In attacking environmental groups for attempting to block the transfer, Mr. Coggin cites “research” done by the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, MT, a 501(c)(3) center funded primarily by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil and advocating “free-market environmentalism”. PERC has ties to the American Lands Council (501(c)), which is one of the primary movers behind the push to transfer federal lands to the states as well as the Koch/Exxon/BP-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (501(c)) which writes model laws, including land transfer bills, and “trains” state legislators in corporate objectives. The Coggin/PERC/Berman/Koch/ conglomerate has spent billions of your tax, investment and pension funds to promote an idea that has no chance of moving forward.

This is not about control by the state, it is about control of the state and easier access by corporations. It’s not about your property rights, but the rights of TransCanada to take your land for their profit, the rights of ExxonMobil to drill on your land, or the right of mining companies to pollute your streams.

In Montana, we have a hard-learned history with corporate control of our state. At the turn of the 20th century the Anaconda Copper Company controlled ¾ of the jobs in our state and most of our natural resources. Anaconda regularly bought and sold state legislators and pillaged our communal resources at will. The people of Montana learned that lesson once and we won’t go back.

Same song, Seventh verse

irrigationline“The bill will ratify a settlement quantifying the water rights of the Tribe and providing for their development in a manner that avoids harm to their neighbors It provides Federal funds necessary for water supply facilities and Tribal economic development, and defines the Federal role in implementing the settlement. This Settlement bill has the full support of the Tribe, the State of Montana, the Administration and the water users who farm and ranch on streams shared with the Reservation. The bill will effectuate a settlement that is a textbook example of how State, Tribal, and Federal governments can work together to resolve differences in a way that meets the concerns of all. It is also a settlement that reflects the effectiveness of Tribal and non-Tribal water users in working together in good will and good faith and with respect for each other’s needs and concerns.”

Sound familiar? This is a quote from The Honorable Rick Hill in the Congressional Record for Feb. 23, 1999 on introduction of the Chippewa Cree Tribe Reserved Water Rights Settlement Act.

Upon introduction of the Rocky Boy Settlement and Compact in the Senate in 1999, Conrad Burns announced the Congressional findings:

By reaching an out of court settlement, the parties will – once this package is implemented – go to the state water court and ask that all pending litigation involving claims by the Tribe, and by the United States on behalf of the Tribe, be dropped. The quantification of the Tribe’s water right will also clearly benefit upstream and downstream users of water in the effected drainage, including the Big Sandy and Beaver Creek as well as the Milk River. These other users will be able to plan for their future because they will know precisely how much water the Chippewa Cree Tribe is entitled to.

Then Governor Marc Racicot praised the Rocky Boy Compact saying:

The settlement of reserved water rights claims within the State of Montana is of utmost importance to the State… The Rocky Boy’s Compact provides for the development of much needed water resources on the Reservation, while at the same time protecting existing water development, adjacent to, and downstream from the Reservation. The federal funding for development will help alleviate some of the very dire needs of Montana citizens who are Tribal members living on the Reservation.

This week in a opinion piece published in several Montana newspapers, former Governor Racicot again reiterated his support for negotiated settlement as the best way to resolve tribal reserved water rights issues including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact.

As a former governor and attorney general, I know that the process of settling tribal water rights is difficult and challenging. But, I also have no doubt that failing to do so will not only be exponentially more costly for Montana taxpayers and the tribes. It will also continue to be a source of stress and strain to our communities and relationships as well. I strongly and respectfully encourage our legislators to approve the water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana.

The CSKT Compact is the last of seven water rights settlements for Indian tribes in Montana to be negotiated between the Tribes, the State and the Federal Government. All of those agreements provided state and federal funds to improve water delivery infrastructure on the reservations. All of the agreements involved, to some extent, off-reservation and downstream water. Since the CSKT Reservation contains, by far the most water of any Montana reservation the current agreement may be a bit further reaching, but it is also, by far, the best deal for the State of Montana, the Federal Government and for the CSKT. Failure of this final negotiated agreement due to bigotry and fear will certainly be “exponentially more costly for Montana taxpayers and the tribes.”

Ad Nauseam 21

agenda21Thursday is Transmittal Day in the Montana Legislature. All non-appropriation bills must be transmitted by each house to the other in three days.

What important, last-minute bills are your legislators busy tidying up this week? How about the “Restore the Foundation of Montana’s Heritage of Individual Liberty, Privacy, and Property Rights Act” (HB583)?  This important legislation has been a silly part of each legislative session for the past decade and has gone exactly nowhere.

Yes, this is the traditional anti-agenda 21 bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee today on an 11-10 vote and now goes on to clog the workings of the entire Legislature. Agenda 21, if you don’t know by now, is a non-binding UN resolution signed by President George H.W. Bush and the leaders of 177 other countries representing 98% of the world population in 1992. The simple Agenda 21 planning document has no funding, is not legally binding on a single person on the planet and seeks only to “improve living standards, and manage the planet’s natural resources in an efficient manner.”

And yet, somehow over the last two decades this simple statement of principles has managed to become a Pavlovian bell used to induce a drooling fit in a small group of right-wing nutcases who believe it to be the root of all evil and a plan for a global Fascist dictatorship (what isn’t?). This, of course brings us to the Montana Legislature that manages to put this drivel on the agenda in each and every biennium. Rather than work on actual problems, which evidently aren’t really that important, or consider other serious nonsense, it seems that your representatives would much rather spend their valuable time and your valuable tax money foaming at the mouth over nonexistent conspiracies.

Absolute Jurisdiction and Control of the Congress

Montana: Brought to you by Koch Industries

Montana: Brought to you by Koch Industries

That the people inhabiting said proposed States do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and said Indian lands shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States;   Enabling Act of 1889 creating the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington

In order to “extinguish” federal ownership of public lands in Montana, every hunter, angler, hiker, mountain biker, logger, birdwatcher and tourist in these United States who enjoys spending long summer days in Montana’s wild places would have to agree that the Montana Legislature, over which they have no control, would do a better job of managing their recreational lands than the federal government and they would have to let their elected representatives know that they are okay with more logging, mining and pollution of their favorite places. IMG_2593.JPG

These public lands don’t belong only to Montana politicians. They belong to every citizen of the country. Senator Jennifer Fielder (R) of Thompson Falls has proposed more than seven bills in the Montana Legislature to facilitate transfer of these lands to her and her cronies, Americans For Prosperity, ALEC, the Koch Brothers, big oil and mining companies. No matter how much these folks would prefer to have our public treasures in private hands, it ain’t going to happen. We already tried giving control of our natural resources to the Ananconda Copper Company  and that didn’t work out so well. Let’s quit spending our limited tax money and the valuable resources of the Montana Legislature to fiddle with bills that don’t have a prayer of passing through Congress and work on some real-world legislation that can improve the lives of real Montanans.

Stop the insanity!

how-stupid-can-you-be

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