HELENA — A lawmaker told a Montana Senate committee Tuesday that he wants to give the state the power of eminent domain to take federal land within its borders.
It's one of several public lands issues being considered by legislative panels this week.
About a third of the land in Montana is owned by federal agencies, and the state is often unable to benefit economically from the natural resources under that land, Republican Sen. Rowlie Hutton of Havre told the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
Hutton fears feds want to limit development
He cited fears held by many Montanans that the federal government is seeking to remove land from development by either designating a national monument or through the Bureau of Land Management's new "Wild Lands" designation, which allows the BLM to protect land for an indefinite period of time without congressional approval.
Senate Bill 254 would give the state the ability to reclaim some of that land that's been protected or being considered for protection and unlock it for resource development, Hutton said.
"We're allowing future legislatures in Montana to identify federally owned land in our state that could be put to better use," Hutton said.
Opponents of the proposal said the state's ability to use eminent domain against the federal government is a long-shot legal theory at best — and unconstitutional at worst — but is unlikely to benefit Montana in any case.
Environmentalists concerned about proposal
"The reason this is a novel approach and has never been tried before is because this is unconstitutional," said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Hedges cited Article 4, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which says only Congress has the power to dispose of any territory or property belonging to the U.S.
Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property. Utah passed a law last year allowing the state to claim federal lands through eminent domain, and also backed up that legislation with a $3 million defense fund to fight any legal challenge to the new law.
Hutton said by passing his bill, Montana would be supporting Utah's law.
A related proposal, House Bill 506 by Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, is being heard Wednesday in the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. It would try to curtail future federal government land purchases in Montana and allow the state to reclaim existing federal land.
Plus, the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee heard a proposed resolution Tuesday by Republican Rep. Ken Peterson of Billings that would oppose the federal government designating any national monuments within Montana without the consent of the Legislature and the governor.
The resolution passed the House on Jan. 31.
Meanwhile, two other legislative committees Tuesday took up bills that deal with state lands.
The Senate Fish and Game Committee heard a proposal by Republican Sen. Rick Ripley of Wolf Creek to ban the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency from buying any more land until July 1, 2015. The proposed moratorium stems from concerns by some legislators that the agency has bought up too much land recently and it now must catch up with managing those acquisitions.
FWP director Joe Maurier told the committee the agency owns about 489,000 acres, has another 400,000 acres in conservation easements and leases 300,000 more acres.
Maurier said the moratorium would hurt the agency's ability to pursue lands for habitat conservation and which the public can access.
Also, the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee heard House Bill 454 by Republican Rep. Pat Connell of Corvallis that would require at least 20 percent of the land acquired by FWP to be used for multiple purposes, including recreation, grazing and logging.