Land transfer bill gets new life in 2021 session

Sponsor Gunderson says he’s trying to strengthen protections for public lands, but it may not be so simple

By: - February 9, 2021 3:50 pm

A view across a lake toward a mountain in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA, circa 1960. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Legislature is again considering a proposal to ban the sale of federal land transferred to the state by an act of Congress, something that opponents fear is a clandestine effort to — paradoxically — open the state’s public lands to sale.

HB320 is an “oldie but a goldie,” a rerun from a slate of land transfer legislation that Montana considered in 2015, said the bill’s sponsor, House Natural Resources Committee chair Steve Gunderson.

The debate about the bill is largely unchanged since then, when it was carried by then-Sen. Jennifer Fielder.

Gunderson, like Fielder before him, framed the bill as an easy sell for environmentalists who champion the importance of public lands. At that time, the bill came as one of several ultimately failing efforts to facilitate the transfer of federally owned lands to the state, an idea popular among conservatives and the American Lands Council, a non-profit that Fielder now heads.

“If public lands are truly public, this simple bill to safeguard federal land transferred to the state should be a very easy yes vote,” Gunderson, R-Libby, said in committee on Monday.

The federal government can dispose of its land holdings as it wishes, though land transfers to states — despite the best efforts of some state legislatures in the West — don’t happen all that often. Recently, the feds finalized a transfer of 5,800 acres to the state of Montana in order to settle a century-plus old debt.

The unilateral control that the government has to sell its land is often used as an argument to transferring ownership to the states.

But, as simple as the bill is, the underlying issue is quite complex, and the sale of public land isn’t always a bad thing, said Noah Marion, the state policy director for the Montana Wilderness Association.

“We are in favor of doing the right things on the right places in public lands,” he said.

This could mean, for example, consolidating a “checkerboard” of public and private land, or selling off some state land in order to procure parcels that have a greater benefit to the state trust, a process known as land banking.

“The question is more complex than do we just want to sell all land transferred or do we not,” Marion said.

If the state were to assume control of the some 25 million acres of federal land in Montana, opponents warn that the state taxpayer would foot the bill for managing the territory — either that or the land would need to be sold or leased.

Gunderson said that a transfer of that size is unlikely to occur, and regardless, the point of his bill is to block such sales from happening.

But Marion and other environmentalists fear the proposal is a red herring meant to enable the transfer of federal land to the state before the law is eventually amended or repealed in order to allow large-scale selloffs.

“This is a poorly disguised attempt to really push the state to further develop lands,” Marion said. “The state has far fewer restrictions on what can be done on its public lands.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.