Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Land transfer proposals don't tell the whole story

by Steve Seninger
| April 4, 2021 12:00 AM

Springtime in the Montana legislature stirs hope for federal public land transfers in the hearts of some legislators. Representative (R-Libby) Steve Gunderson’s House Bill 320, forbidding the sale of federal lands taken by the state of Montana, now moves to the Senate, a retread of public and transfer proposals from previous sessions going back to 2015, the failures of which may reflect Montanan’s overwhelming support for maintaining access to our public lands. Backed by other western Montana Republican Representatives Brad Tschida, Paul Fielder and Senator Theresa Manzella, the bill represents their belief in less government and more jobs. The economic reality of HB 320, an anti-access wolf in sheep’s clothing, is less jobs and more state government.

Transferring millions of federal acres would increase the state budget due to replacing the management and stewardship expertise of the hundreds of federal employees who would lose their jobs or be transferred out of state. Montana’s budget would also be increased by firefighting costs replacing Federal expenditures of $100 million per year, spending bound to increase as unstable climate impacts lead to unpredictable droughts. Economies of scale realized by federal management and a national taxpayer base would be lost with public land transfers. And while BLM and Forest Service lands may be initial targets, it is not difficult to envision taking over national parks and monuments. How this would affect out-of-state visits is not discussed by public land transfer advocates. Certainly, the pandemic-induced surge in outdoor recreation and out-of-state visitations to Montana’s public lands reflect the importance of public lands nationally and our state economy.

Mineral leasing might be a quick fix for the state budget, although at $2 to $1.50 per acre the state would need to lock up thousands of acres for oil, gas, and mining to generate enough money to cover budget shortfalls from managing these lands, and perhaps an ineffective fix since lease take-up rates prior to the national election were pitiably short of expectations. The Montana Legislature could significantly raise the costs of hunting and fishing licenses, increase set asides for high priced out of state hunting permits, increase fees to use state parks, and boat docks or perhaps charge a user fee for state rest areas. These remedies represent more government, fewer jobs, and less access.

Recurring proposals for public land transfers to the state are not upfront about economic and state budget impacts. With a pledge not to sell public lands, at least for now, state budget resources are an unanswered question, especially given the large tax cuts enacted by a select group of legislators in this session.

In some future legislative session, legislators could renege on their earlier promise not to sell these transferred public lands. Privatization and selling public lands would bring in profit seekers and speculative land investors, private hunting and fishing clubs, and exclusive recreation resorts making windfall gains on Montana’s many wonders. Private landowners and outside land buyers can charge what the market will bear for access to their lands opening the door to out of state hunters and recreationists looking for their own private piece of paradise. Montanans either will pay these prices or be excluded.

Public land transfers are consistent with libertarian market and profit doctrine but contradictory to Montana’s heritage of open access to public lands for all citizens rather than access according to the dollar dictates of markets. It would cut off access for the many and make it available for the few who could afford it.

Steve Seninger is a retired economic from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. He lives in Missoula.