Saturday, March 25, 2017

Thanks for Your Comments. Now, Go Away. HB 651


What is it About “No!” That You Don’t Understand?

On Friday night, the House Natural Resources Committee passed on HB 651 to the House floor for a vote. This bill establishes a position of “Public Lands Advocate” under the State Land Board. The funding for this position comes from a $200,000 appropriation from the General Fund. In addition, 651 amends the Habitat Montana statute (87-1-242) so as to add “…and to secure public access to wildlife habitat” to the responsibilities of the program. In essence, this bill taps Habitat Montana for activities that are not part of the aim of the program, opening it up beyond its dedicated purpose.

To start, Rep. Zack Brown (D- Bozeman) objected to the bill being heard as it violated rules that requires adequate time for public notification between when a bill is introduced and then heard in committee. The bill was introduced on March 23rd and the hearing was the next day. Chairman Cary White (R-Bozeman) thanked Rep. Brown for his comment and then proceeded with the hearing. Additionally, the bill had been put together and pushed through so fast that there was not a fiscal note, the standard official and statutorily-required document that analyzes what the monetary impact the bill would likely be. This also provides basis and insight for discussion, both by the public and legislators. The hearing continued.

Once the hearing began no one appeared in support of the bill, except the bill’s sponsor, Matt Regier (R-Kalispell.) His testimony extolled the need for access to the 1.5 million acres of state lands in Montana. He pled the need to be able to access our land. He said that this bill would be the answer.

Immediately following that, 15 people, representing various conservation groups, state agencies and individuals testified in no uncertain terms against it. Sportsman’s groups, Montana DNRC, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and private citizens all spoke against the bill, objecting to the diversion of Habitat Montana funds for dubious purposes and the redundancy and duplication of establishing yet one more government position with overlapping duties to existing successful programs. It was crystal clear that the supposed beneficiaries of HB 651 were adamant that this was not the ultimate solution.

In his closing, Regier tried valiantly to support his bill. He reiterated the need for access to public land and argued that this bill would solve the problem. Ironically, he stated that the turnaround from the time the bill was introduced to the hearing was insufficient for him to rally together anyone to appear in support of the bill. Hmmm. A nod is as good as a wink…..

Later, during Executive session (the time when committee members discuss bills among themselves, do not take any further testimony and then vote up or a down to passing a bill to the floor) the committee passed House Bill 651. The vote was, with one exception, along party lines, with Rep. Kelly Flynn (R-Townsend) opposing. During committee discussion, Flynn held up a fistful of slips, messages sent him by citizens opposing HB 651. He said, “Look at this! 100S and 100s and 100s more.“ He recognized this bill was not widely supported. Also during that discussion Rep. Wylie Galt (R-Martinsdale) broke into a commentary dissing public hunters, the conservation movement, and FWP concerning Habitat Montana. Why would someone with such fierce contempt for the very people HB 651 was supposed to benefit would then turn around and vote for it?

HB 651 is part of a bigger “package” that Republicans in the legislature announced to make access to public land as a banner of the party. Most every candidate, regardless of political stripe running in last year’s election featured photos of him/her swathed in hunter orange, wrestling a wild trout from a stream or sojourning into the Great Outdoors. The governor’s race was in part framed in issues regarding access to public land. Over a thousand people showed up at the capitol recently to demand that public lands remain in public hands. It's unquestionably an issue whose time has finally come. But HB 651 misses the mark…by a long ways.

Certainly, the most egregious part is the diversion of Habitat Montana funding to another agency and for things afield from its intent. Since its inception, Habitat Montana has been used for a wide range of conservation habitat projects including acquisition, conservation easements and leases. It is nationally-recognized and arguably, the most successful program of its kind anywhere. Many who disapprove of the state owning property have objected to this program and have, over the years tried various means to end, or at very least cripple it. HB 651 is one more transparent shot at that. It’s important to note that although not statutorily required, public access has been a requirement in all acquisitions, leases, agreements and conservation easements that are funded all or in part, by Habitat Montana.

HB 651 establishes an “access advocate” position under the State Land Board, ostensibly to promote existing programs, identify opportunities to increase access and propose projects. However, by definition, this overlaps, duplicates numerous existing programs and efforts of other state agencies. FWP has numerous programs such as Block Management (which since 1985 has opened over 7 million acres of private and public land to free hunting) and Fishing Access Sites (over 300 statewide) which are ongoing in their efforts to open state, federal and private lands and waters to the public. DNRC’s recreational use section along with a dedicated Access Coordinator enables and expands public use of state lands. Each of these agencies have numerous other programs where public access is either a dedicated goal or collateral benefit of their work. The simple fact is that HB 651 comprises just another cog of bureaucracy doing the same thing and is simply not needed. And one only wonders why those who presume to be such strong advocates of reducing government and ending duplication and waste would propose more, rather than less. That, at an additional cost not only to Habitat Montana but now, to the General Fund and at the tune of almost a quarter of a million dollars ($200,000). So what gives guys?

If anything, the legislature should be doing everything it can to help the existing programs be sustainable, encouraging efforts to coordinate work across agency lines and view access in a comprehensive fashion. Access to private land often leads to access to state lands which in many cases leads to access to federal lands. Making these gears mesh better should be our priority and goal- not to further clutter the access landscape.

HB 651 will hit the House floor next week and it is critical that representatives get the message loud and clear that this bill is not worth further consideration. They need to be emailed and called with unequivocal messages to vote down this attempt at raiding Habitat Montana and duplicating other, already successful access efforts. 

by Mike Korn, retired FWP 

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