The state House Monday passed legislation on a one-vote margin that opponents warn is a “red herring” aiming to subtly open the door to the sale of public land in Montana.
The body passed House Bill 320, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, on a 51-49 vote, sending it to the Senate.
The bill, despite the fears of its detractors, actually bans the sale of federal land transferred to the state of Montana through an act of Congress. In 2015, Republican lawmakers pushed similar legislation as part of a package meant to facilitate the transfer of federal land to the state.
“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 said in the bill’s committee hearing earlier in February.
But public lands and environmental advocates have said they believe the bill is meant to provide a sense of false security and to put environmentalists in a tough spot, having to defend the occasional sale of some public land. There’s nothing preventing a later Legislature from repealing the law if it passes, clearing the way for the sale of whatever land the state has in its possession.
“This is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bill that’s trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Montanans by making land transfer seem more palatable,” said Noah Marion, the state policy director of the Montana Wilderness Association. “Transfer would threaten our economic recovery, jeopardize public access, and cripple our outdoor way of life.”
The bill has been assigned to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, where it awaits a hearing.