On Wednesday night, 75 people crowded into the Swan Lake Club House to hear a first of its kind in Montana proposal that would transfer management of some National Forest land to the state.
The Lake County Conservation District is gauging community support for the idea it’s been studying for six years now:
"We're suggesting in this study that the lands remain under the ownership of the federal government. We're only talking about changing out the manager. It's not a transfer, it's not a land grab. It's a borrowing, and then a return," says Lake County Conservation District Chairman Jim Simpson.
He says the district got $25,000 from the state legislature to look into creating a locally-managed, so-called "conservation forest" within the Flathead National Forest called the Swan Lake Forest Initiative.
The proposed 60,000-acre tract would remain federal property, but Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would manage it for the benefit of the conservation district for the next 100 years.
"This is about conservation on that forest, it's about making money, and it's about more conservation," Simpson says.
Simpson explained that conservation districts are a branch of the Montana state government; there are 58 of them across the state. They’re tasked with implementing programs that conserve soil and water, protect streams and rivers, and improve soil health.
But Simpson says there’s never enough money to actually carry out this work. The proposed conservation forest would create a new revenue stream for the Lake County Conservation District in the form of timber sales, Simpson says.
"Analysis showed that regardless of the number of acres that we had in there, regardless of the stumpage rate, all of the scenarios provide a positive return. In fact, the returns were much greater than we even imagined this landscape was capable of," Simpson says.
That return, Simpson says, would fund local conservation projects in the district on private, county, state, federal and tribal lands. It would also reduce wildfire fuel loads, which he says are dangerously high in the Flathead forest.
Simpson encouraged his audience to see the proposal as a creative solution to the district’s funding problem, and a proactive forest management tactic.
Instead, almost the entire audience raised strong concerns and outright objections to the concept during a question-and-answer session that lasted more than an hour. I talked to some of the people who objected after the meeting:
"My name is Betsy Ellis, I live in the Swan Valley. I live between mile 52 and 53 on highway 83. I came out to see what this whole idea is about. It doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't compute. I think it's a bad idea, and I came out to hear the other side," Betsy Ellis says.
"Ryan Busse, I sit on the board for backcountry hunters and anglers. I came out because I'm opposed to the idea of propagating land transfer to the states from the federal government. I think it sets a dangerous precedent. As a sportsman and a member of a sportsmen organization we're vehemently opposed to it, Busse says.
“My name is Arlene Montgomery and I am program director for Friends of the Wild Swan. I came out because these are federal lands and they are really important habitat for lots of imperiled species, and I think that this proposal sort of treats them like they’re a piggy bank," Montgomery says.
Many people in the audience expressed concern that this proposal was a thinly veiled attempt to transfer federal public lands to the state, as advocated for by groups like the American Lands Council:
"If the American Lands Council tries to somehow coopt this concept of a conservation forest; if we cannot clearly separate ourselves from that idea, we're out of here. Our conservation district does not support privatizing federal lands, period," Simpson says.
But other questions didn’t receive such clear-cut answers. When someone asked who would determine sustainable timber harvest yields, Simpson said the state would need to do some studies. How would state managers protect federal mandates for multiple use? That’s a management detail that would have to be hashed out. If wildfire fuel build-up is the main management concern, what is the goal for reducing it? Simpson couldn’t answer.
For now, focus on the concept and its potential benefits, Simpson said:
"This concept takes us out of the position where we're walking around with a tin cup asking for pennies to do this work. It would be self-funding right here. That's what we're trying to accomplish," Simpson says.
The proposal is still in its study phase. The Lake County Conservation District will continue taking comments and feedback through March, before deciding whether to bring the idea to Congress for federal approval. This would be the first management transfer of its kind in Montana.