In Montana, Public Lands Remain a Nonpartisan Issue
Not so very long ago, Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale sounded like he’d be right at home as a member of the Bundy family. “The U.S. Constitution clearly defines the purpose for the federal government to retain land for post offices, batteries and things like that,” Rosendale said during the 2014 Republican congressional primary, echoing the family famous for not paying roughly $1 million in grazing fees (for use of public lands) and the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge. “There is no call in the Constitution for the federal government to own national forests or BLM land,” Rosendale said. “I have long been on the record as an advocate for the transfer of federal public lands to the state.”
Rosendale made these statements at a time when the land transfer movement seemed ascendant, and his current opponent, the incumbent, Democratic Senator Jon Tester, has since sought to make them a stink that won’t wash off. “Selling or transferring these lands would be devastating to the outdoor economy, and would trade one of our nation’s greatest investments for short-term financial gain,” Tester wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski, pointing out that public lands use was a foundational part of Montana’s economy in the form of hunting, fishing, livestock grazing, and timber harvests.
Back in 2014, several western states commissioned studies to examine the financial feasibility of land transfer (a Montana bill to study it died in committee) and, in 2016, the Republican Party even made it a plank in the national platform. But in January 2017, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz triggered a backlash that brought the land transfer movement to a halt. The bill, H.R.621, would have sold off about three-million acres of federal land. In response, over a thousand demonstrators flooded the Montana statehouse chanting, “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands.” Demonstrators converged on the New Mexico capitol, too, and also overwhelmed Chaffetz at a town hall meeting in Salt Lake City. Chaffetz quickly withdrew H.R.621 to quell the riot, going so far as to post an image of himself on social media wearing camo and holding a bird dog puppy, with the hashtag #keepitpublic.
In this 2018 election cycle, Rosendale has been doing penance for his earlier land transfer proselytizing. “I’ve listened to the people of Montana and they mean business about protecting our public lands, opposing a federal lands transfer,” he wrote in a Billings Gazette op-ed in April. “There was a time when I thought they could be better managed by the state,” he said in the recent debate, “and I’ve since talked to people all over the state and they’ve made it exceedingly clear that they do not want those lands transferred. And I not only understand that, I agree with that.” Rosendale has not elaborated on what “the people of Montana” said about public lands that led him to suddenly recognize their value (the Rosendale campaign did not respond to my requests for comment), but it’s a safe bet he fears losing independents and moderate Republicans as the driving force. Or maybe Rosendale has come to recognize the probability of economic disaster that land transfer portends (which I wrote about for The Guardian). Whatever the reason, Rosendale proclaims himself a reborn believer in the 640- million-acre federal land trust. “I will always protect public lands,” he says in a recent mailer, where he one-ups Chaffetz’s camo-and-bird-dog shot with a photo of himself on a four-wheeler cutting a muddy track across what appears to be eastern Montana, complete with a hog-tied mule deer buck strapped to the back, its head hanging over the side, tongue lolling.
Rosendale’s 2014 to 2018 flip-flop on land transfer comes as no surprise to conservative pollster Brian Gottlieb, who recently completed a study on Colorado, Nevada, and Montana in collaboration with the Center for Western Priorities. “[Voters] across the West care deeply about access to the outdoors and public lands. Western state voters believe public lands are essential to their quality of life and are pivotal to their state’s economy,” Gottlieb writes. “Voters favor balance and pragmatism and reject the anti-public lands agenda of the Bundy family and the armed militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon earlier this year.”
It’s one thing to support “keeping it public,” and another thing to support the kind of environmental and conservation prerogatives that ensure the future health of landscape-scale ecosystems, which are imperiled by industrial pollution and population growth, and which do not recognize boundaries between public and private land. And that’s where Senator Tester stands out. Steve Daines, Montana’s Republican senator, is a strong advocate for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but he has a two-percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, which rates candidates based on their environmental voting records. Greg Gianforte, Montana’s Republican representative, has a nine-percent score.
Like Daines and Gianforte, Rosendale regularly beats the drums of the “war on coal,” pledging to protect the industry and the aging Colstrip power plant from the threats of cheap natural gas and reduced demand from utilities customers in Washington and Oregon—forces well beyond his reach. Rosendale blames environmental regulation for coal’s decline, but market analysts say deregulation won’t help Colstrip much, if at all. Daines, Gianforte, and Rosendale seem out of step with the significant majority of westerners who oppose rollbacks on environmental regulations and increased extractive industry development on public land.
Tester, by contrast, has an 86-percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. Perhaps most important for Montanans, he has a strong record of building collaborative conservation legislation and looking forward to a future that is already upon us—one in which extractive industries no longer dominate the Montana economy or the state’s politics.
Tester has focused his attention on the exploding outdoor recreation economy, which accounts for an estimated 71,000 jobs and $7.1 billion in annual spending in Montana, nearly double “the value of statewide agricultural crop, livestock, and poultry products,” according to the Outdoor Industry Association of America. Nationally, OIAA values the recreation economy at over $800 billion, and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the outdoor industry’s contribution to GDP now outpaces oil and gas.
Of course, environmental and conservation concerns are only one skirmish line in the Tester-Rosendale campaign. On his third visit to Montana this year on behalf of Rosendale, President Trump did not miss the opportunity to bring up Tester’s successful effort to scuttle the nomination of Trump’s personal doctor, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year. He has made unseating Tester a personal mission ever since. Tester serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and has advanced multiple pieces of legislation to improve veterans’ access to care as well as addressing dysfunction in the VA healthcare system. Most recently, he helped craft and pass the VA Mission Act, designed to reduce wait times for appointments and to help veterans access care outside of VA facilities.
Unlike Trump, Rosendale must know that Tester’s work on veterans’ issues has earned him respect even among conservatives in Montana—a state where one in ten residents has served in the military. “I appreciate the legislation that Senator Tester put through,” Rosendale said, with all the goodwill he could muster.
While Rosendale talks about how he intends to protect public lands, Tester has been in the trenches. Last year, when President Trump proposed staggering budget cuts to the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, including nearly eliminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s budget, Tester fought back. “This budget pays for closing trails, locking up land and shuttering visitor centers,” Tester said. “Over the coming weeks, I will be fighting to restore funding for our public lands, so we can keep growing and creating more jobs.”
Following on the success of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which added 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, Tester championed the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which would add another 80,000 acres the federal wilderness complex. The act has support from hunting outfitters, timber companies, fly fishing guides, and ranchers. At the urging of a group of over three hundred local businesses, conservation groups, and concerned citizens, Tester introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would withdraw 30,000 acres of federal land north of Yellowstone National Park from new mining leases. The bill passed through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in early October with overwhelming support.
It was a moment of triumph for Tester, who does not serve on the committee, which is run by conservative Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But he helped generate enough momentum behind the bill that Republican Senator Daines, who does serve on Murkowski’s committee, voted yes. In an era when the Republican president and Secretary of the Interior are shrinking monuments and gutting environmental regulations for the benefit of industry, Tester was able to wrangle enough support, across party lines, to get it done.