Turning Federal Lands Over to the States and Other Rightwing Fantasies

A recent column by Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder claims that transferring federal public lands to state management is the right thing to do because “nobody cares more for our state than the people who live right here in it.” Montana’s history, however, is rife with examples of what actually happens when management of extractive industries has been ceded to the state by the federal government. “Management” would be a very kind term to describe the rape and pillage that actually occurred and with which we and future generations must live.

Let’s just take the worst examples of state management failures first, the hundreds of mining industry sites that remain unreclaimed, many of which have now been designated Superfund sites. Every mine and smelter in Montana was and is “managed” by state agencies. Take Golden Sunlight, Zortmann-Landusky, Anaconda’s smelter and Butte’s infamous Berkeley Pit. These are all toxic waste sites that will require treatment in perpetuity. Next will be Colstrip with its leaking waste ponds, while closer to Missoula is the seeping dioxin disaster of the former Smurfitt-Stone plant — both “managed” by state regulators.

In the ’90s Republican majorities in the Legislature and Republican Gov. Marc Racicot trashed the state’s non-degradation water quality laws at the behest of the mining industry. They repaid Montana’s “management” with a host of abandoned open pit mines now costing Montanans millions of tax dollars in cleanup costs.

Or how about the millions of acres of federal lands transferred to the railroad barons in return for the promise of building rail lines to “settle the West”? Although most of the spur lines were long ago abandoned, if ever built, the land grants created a checkerboard pattern where every other section of public lands were mixed with the railroad grant lands. The forested lands then got passed on to their corporate successor in interest, Plum Creek Timber.

A quick peek at Google Earth will immediately show what happened when “the locals” — those of us who “live right here in it” got to “manage” the lands. With no state laws and few federal laws regulating the timber industry, the Swan Range is now spiderwebbed by roads on federal, state and Plum Creek lands while Plum Creek, federal and state lands were clearcut right to the boundaries of the Mission Mountains Wilderness in the ’80s when Plum Creek made a decision to “liquidate” it’s forest holdings — and liquidated they were, not by the dreaded Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, but by Montanans running the saws, bulldozers and trucks.

For an even more visual example, take a ride up the Gold Creek drainage just to the east of Missoula and north of the Blackfoot River where square miles of stumps lead right to the border of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. The trees are gone, replaced by one of the largest contiguous infestations of knapweed in the state. And knapweed doesn’t provide forage for the wildlife Fielder claims would benefit from local management. Just the opposite; it poisons out native plants that may have tried to regenerate the tortured landscape. When it comes to logs versus lynx, the logs always seem to win.

No, Senator Fielder, you can try and sweet talk the efficacy of state management, but the documented examples of state “management” failures are too many and too egregious to discount. You can hypothesize all you want about state management of federal lands, but history has clearly proven you wrong — and Montanans simply cannot and will not ignore the multitude of failures by state “managers” to protect Montana’s lands, waters and wildlife.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.