Public land protections were a hot topic item in the last election. While our two major political parties have different approaches to land management, Montana candidates of all stripes campaigned as advocates for public access to public land. The message was clear: Montanans expect our elected officials to protect our public land.
The stump speeches and talking points we’ve gotten used to hearing sound a lot like we’re all on the same page, but the actions on the ground tell a slightly different story. The public has made it clear that any outright privatization of Federal land would be grounds for dismissal, and the land heist movement has responded by getting sneaky.
Here’s a few things to keep an eye out for. These are all small steps toward undermining public investment in public land, and laying the foundation for a land grab down the road.
Forest Service operating budgets have been slashed in recent years, especially for maintenance and infrastructure improvements like trails. The agency has seen a nearly 30% decrease in its Improvement and Maintenance budget since 2011, and the current administration has even more draconian measures in mind. The president’s proposed budget calls for an additional 73% cut to those projects, and reduces the national trail maintenance budget from $77M to $12M. As beetle killed trees continue to fall en masse each winter, even a couple of years without maintenance can erase a trail from the map. Mountain bikers have shown that we’re eager to chip in and help maintain these trails when budgets are tight, but at the end of the day the Forest Service needs the tools to do their job.
This January thousands of public land advocates flocked to Helena to let our legislators know just how important this issue is for us, and public outcry forced Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to retreat from his bill that would have triggered the sale of Federal land across the west. It’s become clear that an outright sale of public land is unacceptable. But smaller movements like shifting management of federal land to states or counties are still cropping up and no less dangerous.
The Swan Forest Initiative is just one example. It’s a proposal just north of Missoula to transfer management of 60,000 acres of National Forest to the Lake County Conservation District. While the land would technically still belong to all Americans, the Conservation District would be in a position to dramatically increase the timber harvest there, and to keep all of the profits. This is another step toward eroding public interest in public lands, and should not get a toehold in Montana.
Across the west, our access to public land traverses private property as it winds into the backcountry. This access is key to balancing private and public property rights. Generally, easements across private land are codified through written agreements and in the property deeds, but in many cases the access is simply traditional. While these prescriptive easements sometimes have spotty record keeping they are legitimate. Now, there is a real effort to undermine these points of access.
Conflict over easements like this have been brewing in the Crazy Mountains, north of Bozeman, for years. Landowners surrounding the Crazies have spent decades obstructing public access and keeping the public Crazy Mountains as their own back yard, for grazing leases, or other commercial purposes. Recently, the issue has drawn the interest of lawmakers from as far away as Texas, and private landowners are pressuring agency staff at the highest levels to abandon the fight for public land. In the face of dwindling budgets and congressional pressure the Forest Service is struggling to protect our shared access.
What Can We Do?
Protecting public land isn’t easy, but together we’re up to the fight.
Contact your legislators – Online petitions are great, but to make a real impact we need to do more. Physical letters are good, phone calls are better, and a personal meeting (if you can swing it!) is best. Visit a town hall meeting, give ’em a ring. They work for you. Remember to be polite!
Here are the phone numbers for our Congressional Delegation:
Senator Jon Tester – (406) 728-3003
Senator Steve Daines – (406) 549-8198
Congressman Greg Gianforte – (406) 969-1736
Call their offices (every day, if you want) and let them know that public land is essential to you as a voter.
Join a group – Our voices are louder together. Groups like MTB Missoula spend time tracking dangerous legislation, meeting with Congressional staff, and collaborating with land managers to keep public land public. Your support makes that possible. You can join right here!
Volunteer – Keep an eye on opportunities to get out and volunteer on your public land. Until the Forest Service is adequately funded, volunteer trail maintenance is an essential part of keeping out land accessible.
Go for a ride – At the end of the day, public investment in public land requires that we have a relationship with it. So go for a bike ride. Bring your family, bring your friends, or just head out for a little bit of solitude. It’s important.