New state law criticized for dissing feds


HELENA - A new Montana law banning the federal government from buying state land is unlikely to have much practical effect, officials say, but critics contend it was intended more as a symbolic slap at the feds from the start.

The law was sponsored by a Republican logging contractor who complained that federal land ownership has cause ''nothing but trouble'' in his area. Critics say the law's passage simply allows conservatives to flaunt their disrespect for the federal government.

''This is a thumb-our-nose at the federal government,'' said Rep. Chris Harris, D-Livingston, who opposed the bill in the state House. ''We don't like the federal government and this is one way of showing our disrespect.''

The measure, signed by Gov. Judy Martz, prohibits the sale of state land to the federal government.

It was an amendment Rep. Rick Maedje, R-Fortine, successfully added to a larger bill. Maedje said he believes Montana is the first state to outlaw sales of its land to the federal government. And it's about time, he added.

''The concern from northwestern Montana is that we have nothing but trouble with federal land ownership in our area,'' Maedje said.

But land managers say such sales to the federal government haven't occurred for decades in Montana, and federal agencies have shown no interest in buying any.

Bud Clinch, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said land swaps with the federal government are more common, with two in the past decade, and nothing in the new law forbids those. The bill also would not prohibit land sales with a third party as intermediary. He dismissed the new ban as inconsequential.

''Nobody from the federal government has expressed interest in buying state land,'' Clinch said. ''I don't think federal agencies are looking to aggressively expand their ownership.''

The two agencies owning almost all of the nearly 26 million acres of federal land in Montana - the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management - agreed with Clinch.

''It would be rare for BLM to ever be a customer to purchase,'' said BLM spokesman Greg Albright. ''When we try to acquire land, it's usually through an exchange.''

Maedje said he hopes his ban will nudge the federal government toward better management policies and prevent its agencies from laying claim to more land. The more tax-exempt federal land Montana has, the greater the burden on other taxpayers, he said.

Dan Kemmis, a former Montana lawmaker and Missoula mayor who now is director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, said Maedje's views are not uncommon in Montana and other Western states.

''The federal government owns far more of the West than any other region, and the interior West was settled by people with a strong strain of individualism,'' he said. ''You have a recipe for major tension.''

A growing perception that the federal land management system has serious problems has aggravated that situation, Kemmis added.

''It goes beyond the old sagebrush rebellion mentality,'' he said. ''It's old-fashioned basic dislike of the federal government.''


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