Rob Breeding: Americans like their public lands public

Lake in Flathead National Forest
Lake in Flathead National Forest

The Flathead Beacon has a persuasive op-ed by Rob Breeding concerning the public lands transfer movement . . .

So far 2017 hasn’t been a great year for those who want to transfer federal public lands to the states, beginning an inevitable process of turning these public lands over to private hands.

That may seem counter intuitive as the anti-public lands crowd is on the ascendancy politically. Sometimes in politics, however, it’s better to have an issue you can use to rally supporters and fuel fundraising campaigns, rather than be in a position to enact policy to change the situation you’ve been railing against.

So it goes for the opponents of public lands. After the 2016 election they seemed closer than ever to their goal. What these politicians don’t seem to get is the people they represent do not share their anti-public land zealotry.

There may be a bit of political buyers’ remorse here.

More than 1,000 public land advocates crowded the state capitol in January to voice their opposition to federal land transfers. The turnout was even larger than a similar rally in Helena two years ago. More recently, Montana joined the competition to host the Outdoor Retailer trade show. That group is bailing on long-time host Utah because that state has become something of a fevered hotbed of anti-public land radicalism.

Those outdoor retailers get it. Public lands are good for business, and the group grew tired of bringing a $45 million economic boost to a state where most of the elected officials support policies that would damage these same businesses.

So Gov. Steve Bullock threw Montana’s hat into the ring. That’s great, despite the bid’s rather remote chance of success. The trade show has grown from about 5,000 attendees back in 1996 to 29,000 last summer.

Salt Lake City is big enough to absorb that kind of influx, but I’m not sure where you’d house that many outdoor gear junkies in Montana, even in Billings. The winter show – the group holds both summer and winter events – could be especially rough. Not that winters in Salt Lake City are balmy, but Billings is windy, frozen tundra by comparison.

I suspect the show will end up in a bigger city – maybe Denver or Portland.

On the legislative front there was one big loss for public lands when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end a rule requiring Congress to consider the value of federal land before it is transferred to states. Disappointingly, then Montana representative, and now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, voted for the rule change.

Other than that, land transfer folks haven’t had much success. A month ago Rep. Jason Chaffetz withdrew his bill, H.R. 621, that would have transferred 3 million acres of federal lands to states. His retreat was largely due to the hammering he was taking from what is otherwise a reliable voting block for the Utah Republican: hunters. Chaffetz announced he was killing the bill with a tweet that included a photo of his hunting dog.

I think he got the message.

The same thing happened on the state level in Wyoming. Earlier this year a controversial state land swap that included a chunk of prime big game habitat near Laramie died. And in the capitol, land transfer legislation that was two years in the making was DOA when it was introduced in January.

I talked to one legislative leader, a conservative Republican rancher who is no fan of the Feds, and he dismissed the legislation before it even had a hearing. The bill’s backers were pushing a concept few in even the reddest of red states support.

Does this mean the fight to save public lands has been won? Hardly. This is going to be a long, hard slog. The supporters of land transfers and privatization are true believers, and there’s plenty of money to fuel their fanaticism.

The good news is their idea is deeply unpopular. If we stand together this is a battle the people can win.