Throughout 2020, political contenders of all stripes made the same straightforward promise, one that’s now as familiar to Montana voters as spring runoff or November snowstorms: to be a champion for public lands. This election-year refrain arrived in the form of television ads, campaign mailers and stump speeches. It drove debate responses, spawned attacks and spurred outside groups to sift through voting records in an attempt to glean how sincere the promise might or might not be.

Now, with a slate of newly elected executives and lawmakers preparing to take office in January, that promise will begin to manifest in state and federal policy. The results of several races have already prompted critics to sound alarms about the future of natural resource extraction, environmental protection and public access. The specter of the lands transfer movement cast a shadow over the candidacies of several electoral victors, as well. 

But public lands are far more vast than any single issue or office. Each self-proclaimed champion is one cog in a complex and sprawling mechanism, wielding extraordinary control over one spot on the map and virtually none over another. As Montanans prepare for a new president, a new Congress, a new governor and a new state Legislature, here’s a breakdown of exactly how diverse the public tracts within the state’s borders are, and what to look for in the coming months when it comes to our collective property.

WHAT’S WHAT, AND WHO’S IN CHARGE?

The term “public lands” is an extremely large umbrella covering all lands owned by federal, state or local governments. Public lands are managed by a variety of agencies for a host of purposes.

At the federal level alone, the diversity of public lands is dizzying. The 640 million acres owned by the people of the United States include: national forests managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for multiple uses including oil, natural gas and timber production, wildlife habitat and recreation; national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service; national parks managed by the Interior Department’s National Park Service; and 247.3 million acres of public land managed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management for resource development, recreation and livestock grazing. 

President Donald J. Trump, flanked by Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, right, signs H.R. 1957, the Great American Outdoors Act, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in the East Room of the White House. Credit: Official White House photo by Tia Dufour

More than 26.9 million acres in Montana are federal lands, a portfolio including every category listed above plus national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, national recreation areas and congressionally designated wilderness areas. Much of the decision-making power for how these lands are managed falls to the presidential appointees who oversee the managing agencies, as does some authority to sell or acquire additional land. Funding for federal land management is subject to congressional approval.

The state of Montana owns nearly 5.2 million acres with its borders. The bulk of those are known as school trust lands, and are managed by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to generate revenue for public education through resource development, agricultural leasing and recreation. The DNRC’s management of school trust lands is directed by the state Land Board, made up of all statewide elected officials. Come January, the board will be composed entirely of Republicans — Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and State Auditor Troy Downing — for the first time in more than two decades. Following a 2018 Montana Supreme Court ruling, state conservation easements on private lands in Montana no longer require Land Board approval. But the sale of state-owned lands and acquisition of new land from private owners — typically paid for through the Habitat Montana program — do fall under the board’s purview.

Other types of state-owned land include campgrounds, fishing access sites and wildlife management areas operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as well as 55 state parks managed by Montana State Parks. Here, too, control is largely split between the executive and legislative branches, with the governor appointing department heads and replacements for termed-out members of regulatory bodies such as the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Legislature in charge of funding.

In the heat of debates over congressionally designated wilderness, national forest management and state-level land acquisitions and conservation easements, it’s often easy to overlook city and county trails and parks, but these, too, fall under the public lands umbrella. They also draw significant funding from state and federal sources including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which introduces one of the more recent issues facing public lands at every level.

WHAT TO WATCH

On Nov. 9, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt issued an order outlining new provisions for LWCF spending that immediately sent the conservation community into a frenzy. Months earlier, President Donald Trump had signed the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill co-sponsored by Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines that guarantees an annual $900 million in funding for the LWCF. The sideboards Bernhardt subsequently put in place included a stipulation that any land or water acquisitions made using LWCF dollars would require written support from both the local county government and the appropriate state governor. Public lands proponents quickly argued that adding such a procedural hurdle would create burdensome delays in protecting and increasing access to valuable lands. 

“This undercuts what a landowner can do with their own private property, and creates unnecessary, additional levels of bureaucracy that will hamstring future land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said last week in a statement panning Bernhardt’s order.

It wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that the Trump administration had drawn criticism for its approach to land management. The Interior Department blew past an early November deadline to submit LWCF allocation requests to Congress, prompting a harsh rebuke from the nonprofit LWCF Coalition and forcing the Senate Appropriations Committee to draft a budget proposal using its own ranked project list. The appropriations committee — on which Tester and Daines both serve — also chastised Bernhardt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue over a budgetary request for national park maintenance projects funded by the Great American Outdoors Act, stating in its bill summary that it was “disappointed by the lack of specific bureau and project-level information” provided.

These are the sorts of issues that public lands advocates find particularly troubling at the federal level. Individual lawmakers and organizations such as the Utah-based American Lands Council have made a lot of noise in recent years about transferring federal lands to state ownership, and conservationists countered that movement by coining the now-popular mantra “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands.” However, such fed-to-state transfers are achievable only by an act of Congress, and George Nickas, executive director of the nonprofit Wilderness Watch, said he sees “very little likelihood” of that happening. Nickas is far more concerned with efforts to shift more control over federal lands to state and local officials — a strategy illustrated by Bernhardt’s controversial new provision.

“It’s trying to devolve those important decisions down to the state level and the local level,” Nickas said. “And of course that is an effort by Bernhardt and the Trump administration, that’s not part of the [congressional] reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

With so many different types of public lands and so many different layers of corresponding government, it can be tricky for the average Montanan to know just what to watch out for. When it comes to the 117th Congress, in which Tester, Daines and freshly minted U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale will represent Montana, Nickas said it will be particularly important to keep an eye on how lawmakers approach the issue of wildfire. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires have burned more than 8.7 million acres across the U.S. in 2020. That includes a record-setting 4.1 million acres in California.

Daines already turned his attention to the wildfire question this year, introducing a forest management reform bill alongside California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In an August press release, Daines claimed the bill would “speed up urgently needed projects to reduce wildfire risks, create good paying jobs in the forestry sector, and protect public health and safety.” 

Wildfire policy is also on Tester’s list of federal discussions that will hit the ground on Montana’s public lands. 

“We’ve also got to make strong investments in research, training, and innovative strategies to protect people and communities from the increasingly catastrophic fire seasons magnified by climate change,” Tester said in an email response to Montana Free Press. “And we need to make sure Montana’s collaborative groups have a real seat at the table as we make federal land management decisions that support local economies and create good paying jobs.”

In light of Daines’ re-election, the public can also expect to hear more about increased access to public lands and the proposed release of wilderness study areas — a pitch that has drawn the support of motorized and mechanized users seeking access to those lands, while riling groups who view such access as disruptive to wildlife, wild lands and primitive recreation. As Montana’s representative in Congress, Gianforte also carried a proposal to release WSAs in the state.

But perhaps the biggest development likely to arise in 2021 is President-elect Joe Biden’s reversal of scores of Trump-era changes to public lands management. The past four years have seen one controversy after another, from the 2017 reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to the recent court-ordered removal of acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley. The latter came about as the result of a lawsuit filed by Montana’s outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock, and U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris noted in his ruling that any decisions made by Pendley during his 424-day tenure as the de facto head of the BLM should be considered unlawful.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernardt, Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and U.S. Wildlife Services Montana Director John Steuber, left to right, discuss grizzly incursion at a meeting in Choteau on Oct. 5, 2019. Credit: Tami Heilemann / Department of Interior

“He was never confirmed by the Senate,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director at the Montana Wildlife Federation. “So we’re going to scrap those resource management plans throughout hundreds of thousands of acres of central and eastern Montana. We’ll look at his decisions to undo sage grouse conservation, which was a multi-year effort bringing together very diverse stakeholders to come up with conservation plans that kept that bird off the endangered species list.”

Montana Wilderness Association Deputy Director John Todd agrees that much of the federal public lands conversation in the coming months will be dominated by Biden’s attempts to untangle four years of Trump’s energy-dominance agenda, which opened millions of acres of the West to resource development.

Biden has already vowed, once he takes office, to permanently protect key conservation areas impacted by the Trump administration and to ban new oil and gas leases on public lands.

And in Todd’s assessment, the new administration’s work goes beyond the policy-making realm, requiring a new president and Congress to restore leadership and morale at numerous agencies beleaguered by criticism.

“There’s an awful lot to keep an eye on right now,” Todd said, “but I come back to my trust in the belief that these are truly bipartisan issues at a very fundamental level. We may not always agree on the particulars of specific management prescriptions or designations, but people will really rally around ensuring that their public lands are there and available for their kids and their kids’ kids.”

As for state-owned lands, the Legislature’s budget deliberations and Gianforte’s future appointees to leadership positions at FWP and DNRC will likely draw considerable scrutiny from public lands advocates. Todd is particularly curious how the Legislature will approach the allocation of funding for programs including Montana’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, created by Bullock in 2016, and Habitat Montana, which funds habitat preservation efforts through conservation easements and land acquisitions. One acquisition Gevock plans to pay close attention to in 2021 is the state’s proposed purchase of a 5,677-acre ranch near the Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area — a purchase that will ultimately go before the new state Land Board for final approval.

“It adjoins more than 100,000 acres of public lands in the Big Snowies that have very limited public access,” Gevock said, “and it also sits right smack in the middle of one of Montana’s largest elk herds.” Gevock added that increased hunter access to that land will help the state better manage that elk population.

Gevock’s nod to elk cuts to another core consideration with public lands: the wildlife that inhabit them. Some species are managed by the state on behalf of all Montanans. Others — grizzly bears among them — are protected under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. Though the ESA is a federal statute, many conservationists have turned their focus to the state when it comes to grizzlies, pushing back against local pressure to delist the species and opposing the public hunts that may result from Montana taking over post-delisting management. Of the three states boasting grizzly populations, Nickas said, Montana has traditionally been the most measured in its approach to the species. But with the shift in political power resulting from the 2020 election, he’s concerned the state may adopt the more aggressive stance toward grizzly delisting already taken by Wyoming and Idaho, in contrast to the coexistence-heavy tenor of Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council.

“A lot of [the advisory council’s] recommendations were focused on education and on how do we live with grizzlies, how do we clean up our communities, how do we clean up our campgrounds,” Nickas said. Now, he said, he has a feeling that “a lot of that stuff about coexistence is going to get buried and Montana is only going to be talking about delisting and having a hunt. I think that’s where we’re going to see that issue go.”

This story was updated Nov. 23, 2020, to add information about President-elect Biden’s proposed ban on new energy development on public lands.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.