Federal land management may not be perfect, but experts cautioned legislators to favor collaboration over political posturing as they consider any future state action.
On Wednesday, the interim Legislative Environmental Quality Council heard testimony from academics and federal spokespeople on federal land management and the limits of state authority.
University of Idaho forestry and policy professor Jay O'Laughlin recently testified on the same issue for an Idaho legislative committee.
O'Laughlin cited several reasons for current federal land management difficulties, but they boiled down to two main things: gridlock, and fragmented authority and accountability.
Gridlock comes from the failure to get local consensus. Upper-level managers, who are perhaps unfamiliar with local issues, make decisions with less accountability, O'Laughlin said.
While those problems have prompted some public distrust, lawsuits and low morale among federal employees, having states take over is not the answer, O'Laughlin said.
Legislators should focus on changing the rules of land management because there is no citizen support for changing land ownership, O'Laughlin said.
“I think it's a really hard case to get the federal government to extinguish land title, and it would be expensive,” O'Laughlin said. “It's better to approach this as friends rather than enemies.”
The hearing was the first in an interim study mandated by the Republican-sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 15 to identify problems that Montana's leaders have with federal land management and to find things the state can do to minimize those problems.
The Montana Legislature isn't the only one questioning federal-land policies, and it's not the first time legislatures have done so. States were unsuccessful in similar attempts during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s.
More recently, the Utah Legislature last year passed legislation requiring the U.S. government to relinquish title to its lands.
This year, Wyoming created a task force to specifically study the transfer of public lands and is requiring its attorney general to seek legal options to compel the federal government to give up its lands.
Wednesday's testimony underlined that such efforts were folly.
University of Montana natural resource policy professor Martin Nie encouraged the council to use a more constructive approach because future challenges will require more cooperation between state and federal governments.
“The courts are consistent. The Supreme Court has said that the Congress's power over federal lands is without limitations,” Nie said. “Resurrecting such arguments makes great public theater, but it's more symbolic than substantive.”
U.S. Forest Supervisor Tom Schmidt said the Forest Service suffered a 19 percent budget cut in fiscal year 2012 and is expecting another 8 percent cut for each of the next few years.
So the Forest Service has started a new program to promote collaborative processes, such as the Blackfoot Challenge, for “issues where we don't have the funds or the people to work on them,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt added that Forest Service managers cannot initiate a collaborative process but are happy to join in.
“Recommendations from collaborative groups carry a lot more weight, kind of a social license,” Schmidt said. “It is leading to some better decisions.”
Some counties have benefited from logging and mining on federal land in the past. As those industries diminished over the past 30 years, the federal government created other funding to compensate counties for losses, such as the Secure Rural Schools Act.
Now those sources are being cut as congressional Republicans insist on deeper cuts to the federal budget.
The council sent a federal-lands survey to 35 county commissions, and Legislative Environmental Analyst Joe Kolman said 16 surveys — including one from Gallatin County — had been returned.
Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said previously he doesn't support taking over federal land because it would cost too much.
Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel said he supported the study and indicated that he would like to see all forest lands go to private hands.
“In Germany, only 5 percent of forests are federal lands. They're getting rid of it because they don't have the money to manage it,” Happel said. “Why can we use that common sense? We don't have the money to manage our federal land.”