Montana legislators debate transfer of federal lands to state control; National Wildlife Federation attorney says state needs to do a 'better job' of moving timber off federal lands, but warns against legislative actions

HELENA, Montana , January 9, 2014 () – Spirited discussions took place in the Capitol Wednesday on whether Montana should attempt to wrest ownership of public lands from the federal government.

Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and attorney, urged members of the Environmental Quality Council to continue down its path of investigating whether Montana should try to assume ownership and management of some or all of the federal lands in the Treasure State. Ivory was one of six people from a range of backgrounds asked to testify before the EQC.

Under legislation passed in 2013, the EQC is reviewing what's been called the "complex web of laws, court decisions and financial realities," under which public lands are governed.

When the nation was formed 200 years ago, Ivory said, the idea was that as states were created they would be given title to some of the federal lands. National parks, military installations, Indian reservations, congressionally designated wilderness and a few other parcels wouldn't be part of those transferred lands.

"The federal government promised all the new states they would transfer the title to public lands to the states," Ivory said. "It's already been done before repeatedly, and I submit it's the only solution to ensure we can educate our children, protect the environment and keep our energy independence."

He noted that east of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, more than 95 percent of the public lands are controlled by the states. That drops to only 50 percent west of that line. It would be more economically feasible and practical for the states to manage those lands, Ivory said.

He sponsored a bill in Utah that requires the United States government to make the title transfer by the end of 2014, though conceding that probably won't happen within that time frame. He added that five other states -- Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Montana -- also passed legislation to explore the issue.

"We set that as a date to work toward," Ivory said. "(Utah's) House Bill 148 set a deadline because without a deadline you know it gets put off and it really crystallized the groups working on this. No one said this is a quick fix."

That was one of the few statements Ivory made that Tom France, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, supported.

"I don't think the federal government will be divesting lands anytime soon, and I don't think it's a profitable way to spend our time," France said. "But all of us agree there are some problems. We need to do a better job moving timber off federal lands; so the question becomes how to do that and where do we do that."

But he urged the EQC to step back from legal or legislative actions that Ivory touted, saying that approach will pull the West apart.

"There are people who strongly believe in our public lands and will fight forever to see them preserved for generations," France said. "We need to combine our common interest in that landscape."

More than one-third of Montana is publicly owned, with most of that land held by the federal government. That has a significant impact on the state in a variety of ways, ranging from the environment to educational funding.

Peter Kolb, a state forestry specialist, noted that under management practices, about 6 billion board feet are allowed to be harvested annually on federal lands in Montana, but in 2012 only 2.6 billion board feet was taken. He added that of the 27 million acres of forest land in Montana, 5.5 million acres has burned in the last 12 years and trees on close to 14 million acres have been killed or severely damaged by various beetle and worm outbreaks.

Regardless of who owns the public lands, Kolb said they need to collaborate and move more quickly on the ground when wildfires, beetle kill or other unforeseen problem arise. The federal government gets bogged down with well-meaning legislation that often leads to what's known as "analysis paralysis" and by the time it decides on a course of action it's usually too late.

"To do that you need managers who are intimate with the land, and the ability to make decisions on that land in a timely fashion," Kolb said. "Whether it's the state or federal government is irrelevant to me."

But Doyel Shamley, chairman of an Arizona consulting firm that specializes in natural resources, said in his experience, "collaborated processes are a flop." He suggested that states and counties invoke the 10th Amendment and undertake land management activities on federal property if needed for the "health, safety and welfare" of the people.

As John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, listened to the panel discussion, he urged the EQC to look at the big picture and keep the future in mind.

"I'm not focused on whether today is a day of major watershed change in federal policy management in Montana, but what projects I can move forward with next year, showing cooperation through our agency and federal land management," Tubbs said, noting that the state is working in conjunction with federal agencies on a variety of projects. "And if you recall, under the previous administration we gained a lot of land and we're actively trying to figure out how to manage that land now that we own it."

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