The Billings Outpost

The real problem with transfer of fed lands



Much has been written about the monetary aspects of the Montana Republican party’s proposed transfer of federal lands to the state. I could offer up more financial information, but if a political party priding itself on its sense of fiscal responsibility is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars net in revenue without gaining anything for the public treasury, then facts probably have little resonance.

I could, of course, point out, as others have, that the state might recoup its losses and pay for the increased services needed to manage newly acquired acreage by conducting a sell-off of natural resources at bargain prices. It is likely that a few multinational (or perhaps Denver- or Houston-based) corporations might throw some crumbs to a select number of Montanans as they set up operations.

Ultimately, the proposal to transfer some 25 million acres of federal public lands to Montana has little to do with state economics and much to do with the raw, unstoppable kind of power that spends money on political campaigns with the clear intention of gaining something in return—like increased exploitation of natural resources.

But the underlying issue is, to my mind, not fiscal or political. It is philosophical.

Public lands — national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas — are held by all the people of the United States in trust for the future. They do not belong to individual states. The fact that most of them are in the West is an artifact of history and means that Easterners are paying those of us who live in or near these areas an often-generous subsidy. Ironically — considering all the righteous anger Westerners express about this situation — the flow of money goes from east to west.

But public lands are worth preserving for their intrinsic value alone. They are usually vulnerable places or areas of great beauty or historical meaning. To be sure, some represent spaces that went unclaimed (or were eventually deserted) by white settlers in the rush to populate the continent. But their very desolateness makes them grand.

Admittedly, the federal government does not always manage these places to the satisfaction of a) scientists, b) ranchers, c) investors and businesses, d) hunters and fishers, or e) environmentalists. In fact, one measure of the government’s success might be that at any given time someone will be angry about its oversight.

But, again, enough of that. At its root, this issue stirs us because it concerns our identity, how we walk and hunt and camp in places that belong to us as citizens of a free country, how we stretch our legs, our brains, our hearts. And how some of us seem willing to relinquish that freedom in exchange for a chimerical promise of “Do whatever you want now, kids,” a desired permissiveness or short-lived prosperity that seems to cater to irresponsibility. Freedom, after all, is not the ability to do anything you want at any time. It is an adult independence that combines love and stewardship, an independence that I, a native Westerner, used to take for granted, believing that, like water, it would always be there, transparent and clear.  After all, didn’t everyone care about our natural heritage?

Then I moved to extreme northern Maine and lived there for four years. Like Montana, it is a sparsely populated place of great beauty, but there is very little public land. If you want to hike or camp in the woods, you have few options. There are some rivers open to recreation, and some state and local parks and trails, and you can gather wild blueberries in the railroad rights of way (if no one sees you, that is), but lumber companies largely run Aroostook County (the “crown of Maine”), which means that access to the region’s forests and lakes is by (sometimes expensive) permit. Should you plan to hunt, you might return to last year’s deer yard only to find a feller buncher at work.  

These are “productive forests” (if, by “productive,” we mean the manufacture of toothpicks and pencils, what third growth-plus trees are used for). But the money from lumber operations goes mostly out of state. With automation, in fact, fewer and fewer employees are needed. Now, most folks move to Connecticut or points farther south if they want to make a living. This displaced Westerner, at least, was often struck by the concomitant lack of access and paucity of economic opportunity for local residents.

Can Montana do it differently? Might state (or private) ownership translate into increased access, better management, and economic growth? Mining companies might indeed harbor a greater sense of social responsibility than the Maine timber industry. I, however, have yet to see any situation in which a people bargaining away their shared heritage and the patriotic duties that unite them in the pursuit of individual excellence can prosper, spiritually or materially.

Perhaps, in the end, this talk of returning federal lands to the state is not much more than a campaign ploy to rile up the old sagebrush rebels against our foreign-born, gay-Muslim, socialist-fascist, lazy-tyrannical president and members of his party. Undoubtedly, after we again have a Republican Senate and, in two years, a real American in the White House, all the fuss will die down.

Cara Chamberlain lives and writes in Billings.


Last Updated on Thursday, 16 October 2014 12:45

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