Stacking the Deck

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Like many people, I’m still in recovery from the 2013 Legislative session. Unfortunately, the work never stops. Today, I went to a subcommittee meeting of the Environmental Quality Council where the members were discussing a proposed survey to be sent out to Counties that have 15% or more public land inside their boundaries. Reading the survey is enlightening.

The gist of SJ 15, an interim study of Public Land Management, is to look at issues related to Public Land Management. Unfortunately, the study (and the survey) begins and ends with the assumption that the Federal Government has mismanaged public lands. Frequently, questions related to fire danger, mismanagement of timber harvest, lack of motorized use and a common theme of simply not enough resource extraction pervades the survey.

As one reads the survey, one realizes who’s influencing the committee. Between leading questions related to fire, endangered species, and motorized use, the undercurrent is clear: The goal is short term gains for private industry at the expense of the greater public good.

Cloaked in a wholesome flag of economic prosperity, the survey and the study ignore the second largest industry in Montana: tourism on public lands. That includes the over $2 billion in revenues generated by hunting and fishing.

In fact, the way this survey is presented, and the manner in which question are being asked shows that, once again, our elected officials would rather ignore the huge economic impact that hunters and anglers have in Montana in favor of other special interests. Only a couple of questions even mention hunting and angling, but they’re buried under leading questions about motorized use or how wildlife has hampered other industries.

Look, the outdoor industry in Montana is the second largest industry in the state. It only trails behind all combined Agriculture. In fact, over $2 billion per year is spent chasing bulls, bucks, trout and walleye. That’s an economic powerhouse compared to the oil and gas industry and the timber industry. Public Land Management is a balancing act, especially when we look at the needs of each industry.

We’re certainly supportive of the timber industry. That’s one reason we support the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. We’re also supportive of developing oil and gas resources on public lands. But neither of these activities should take away from the core competency of the outdoor industry: Public lands in public hands. Neither of these industries should be shown favor over other uses of public lands. That’s the entire concept behind multiple use.

As other states in the West have done, the EQC is heading down a path that will lead to the introduction of bills calling for the elimination of public lands, or the loosening of already watered-down environmental safeguards designed to help ensure abundant wildlife and hunter success. Our access programs will be attacked once again. Our publicly held wildlife will be placed on the auction block for the highest bidder. Utah, Wyoming and a few other western states have decided that the Fed doesn’t do enough on public lands. To these elected officials, it all comes down to extractive industries rather than a balanced, multiple use approach.

Sage Grouse are a great example here. In Wyoming, former Governor Freudenthal issued an executive order to bring all stakeholders together to find the best way to save the thunder chicken. After the committee reviewed the science and the reality on the ground, they came up with some reasonable ways to help conserve the grouse. Those solutions relied on what was really affecting sage grouse populations: rampant development in core Sage Grouse areas. Livestock producers were also asked to modify grazing plans and avoid certain areas during mating season, and Oil and Gas companies were required to follow existing stipulations for winter drilling and spacing around leks rather than get exclusions and bowl over sage grouse leks.

Not content with that, the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association called for the end of hunting sage grouse. The other canard of predator management came out. The science is clear that hunting and predation do not play large roles in sage grouse populations unless the habitat has been severely degraded. Hunters, rightfully, protested the call to eliminate not only a hunting opportunity but a funding source for sage grouse conservation.

Utah is the other bright shining star of anti-public land sentiment. In Utah, the state has formally requested that the Federal Government hand over federal lands so that Utah can manage them for the highest yield when it comes to extractive industry. That means kicking hunters off public land because of Utah’s rules for state lands that don’t allow for extended camping. It also means a much higher tax burden for citizens to pay for fire suppression, weed management and many other issues that arise with land management. Utah’s solution to this increased tax burden? Don’t worry, we’re going to sell off these lands so you, the taxpayers, won’t be burdened with it. Yep – sell off public lands. It’s an idea that’s growing in popularity with Western Legislators.

Now it hits Montana. The survey is only going out to Counties.
Not people who use the lands.
Not people whose businesses are dependent upon abundant public land and water.
Not hunters or anglers or hikers, bikers or any member of the public.

Instead, it is just the counties who look at one budget year at a time. The focus is on federal programs like Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools. These are reasonable concerns given Congresses’ desire to eliminate spending for those interests who aren’t as skilled at lobbying as others.

Public Lands are a blessing in Montana. Our legislators need to hear that from public land hunters and anglers. Take a moment to send an email telling the Environmental Quality Council that any attempts to undermine the scientific management of wildlife on public lands, or any attempt to place one industry above another, will be met with fierce resistance. Your future hunting opportunity, as well as your children’s, hangs in the balance.

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Hellgate Hunters and Anglers
Our Mission is to conserve Montana's wildlife, wild places, and fair-chase hunting and fishing heritage.