Senate approves Great American Outdoors Act to fund federal land upkeep and land purchases

Photo courtesy Montana Stockgrowers Association
Screen Shot 2020-06-22 at 6.29.36 PM

The Senate approved an Act to spend more of the federal budget to buy land and to maintain federal land.

For many ranchers, the fact that federal lands need improved management is good enough reason to oppose the idea of more federal land ownership.

The Great American Outdoors Act would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million per year, to be used for federal lands upkeep, with 40 percent of the funds dedicated to land acquisition. If the House supports it, and the President signs it, the legislation will be enacted.

Cory Gardner (R-CO), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Steve Daines (R-MT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and 51 other Senate members introduced the bill supported by the likes of MT Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, MT Lodging and Hospitality Association, MT Wildlife Federation, MT Wilderness Society, Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation, Glacier County Tourism, MT Trout Unlimited, MT Contractors Association, MT Association of Land Trusts, and Mountain Bike Missoula.

The Conservation Fund said The Great American Outdoors Act includes full and permanent funding for the LWCF, which will be an essential tool for America’s economic recovery through the improvement of access to our beloved public lands. “LWCF can also play an important role in helping to revive and grow local outdoor recreation economies. We commend Senators Daines, Tester, Manchin, Gardner and all of the bipartisan leaders in the U.S. Senate for championing this critical conservation program.” said Larry Selzer, President and CEO, The Conservation Fund.

Jay Bodner with the Montana Stockgrowers said his group doesn’t support any additional government land acquisition, arguing that the very presence of federal lands actually strains communities’ economies.

Taking land out of private hands pulls it off the tax rolls, adding more of a burden to the remaining landowners. “That impacts the communities, those tax needs must be ‘backfilled,’ which usually happens by increasing property taxes for the remaining folks,” Bodner said.

The chairman of Idaho’s Washington County Commission, Kirk Chandler, unsuccessfully tried to stop the BLM from purchasing land a few years ago. Chandler has the same concerns as Bodner, plus he said the federal government purchasing land goes against the US Constitution. With 63 percent of his state already being managed by the federal government, Chandler thinks that is more than enough.

“Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says the federal government is only to own the land around Washington DC, post offices, forts, ports and dockyards.” The Idaho sheep and cattle rancher says there is no deed to be found for BLM or USFS land because technically the federal government does not own that land, but rather administers it. While Chandler himself does not utilize BLM or USFS grazing on his ranch, his sons do on theirs.

The land purchase deal that Chandler tried to stop amounted to about 1,100 acres added to an existing BLM preserve intended for sage grouse. The land was taken off the tax roll. Although the BLM did spray the noxious weeds, the area became a fire hazard because it wasn’t grazed, and recently the entire parcel plus much more US Forest Service and private land went up in flames because of the fuel overload caused by not grazing the land.

“Two years ago, it all burned, every bit of it, it went through the sage grouse area with a vengeance,” he said. “The fire started on forest service ground and burned into private land,” he said.

Additionally, the federal government has an unfair advantage – much deeper pockets – when it comest to competing with a private citizen, like a young rancher, for a piece of land. “Ultimately what we see happening in those situations is the value of land is increased greatly when the federal government starts competing for purchasing land. It starts to price land out of the realm of possibility for younger generations to enter business and be successful,” said Bodner.

Bodner said that even though sometimes the government might just want a relatively small parcel of land to provide access to a park or reserve, those one or a few sections might make the difference for a rancher, between being viable or not. “A lot of times that could make or break a ranch, maybe that’s the summer pasture, even those smaller pastures are critical to farms and ranches.”

“Private landowners are very good at managing that land, conducting weed management, keeping up fences and such. The federal government already has a shortage when it comes to the resources they need to adequately manage, whether that’s weed or pest management or other issues. Those concerns are on the forefront of the neighboring landowners.” Bodner said management issues need to be addressed before the feds even consider purchasing additional land.

“The BLM and USFS are poor neighbors, echoed Chandler. “Their management is wasteful.”

While outdoorsmen laud the spending bill, for providing more access, Chandler says many times “public” land is closed to the public anyway. He cites Roadless Areas where people are disallowed from entering, and other land where camp sites have been closed down.

Still, many groups voiced support for the action.

“This is good news for all sportsmen and sportswomen concerned about access to places to hunt, fish, target shoot and recreate on public lands. Hunters and recreational shooters need access to public lands, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund projects are opening up access across the country,” said Tim Brady, the President of Boone and Crockett Club, in a Senator Daines news release.

The Montana Stockgrowers are comfortable with land exchanges that result in no net gain of government land – and these happen on occasion with state land, Bodner said.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council oppose the Great American Outdoors Act.