- Associated Press - Saturday, March 7, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A state House committee has heard testimony for and against a bill that would create a task force to study the feasibility of the state assuming ownership or management of federal land now run by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Proponents cited loss of access to forests, the increasing threat of wildfires and pests such as mountain pine beetle and other problems under federal management as reasons for supporting the study of state management.

Opponents said the idea of turning over control to the state doesn’t have merit, and a study is a waste of time. They acknowledged that problems do exist on federal land, but added that there are collaborative ways to address them.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, brought House Bill 496 before the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday, saying the task force would help answer questions about land management in Montana.

“I think that’s what this study is trying to get is the answers on how we as the people of this state can make a difference,” White said. “Can we do a better job of managing our watershed and our clean air and clean water and an environment for wildlife habitat? The state does one heck of a good job managing our land.”

White said the task force would study ways Montana could make a difference in getting projects such as fuels reduction accomplished.

The study will look at the possibility of pilot projects in the state where the state can take over the lead in getting these projects completed, he said.

“The state does one heck of a job in managing our lands,” White said.

The task force would conduct an economic analysis under the assumption that federal public land would remain in public ownership, but under state control. Designated wilderness areas would not be part of the study.

The analysis would include measures that could improve the cost-effectiveness of land management if federal lands are transferred to state control.

Also studied would be options for funding land management activities including fighting wildfires, and the estimated value of existing resources and production capacity.

The study would look at the potential for incremental transfers of federal land to state control over time, and state entities best suited to carry out the land management functions, as well as the possibilities of conducting pilot projects.

During testimony Friday, Jody Loomis, who lives in the Helena valley, said he gathers firewood, camps, snowmobiles and hunts on federal land near the city. Over the years, he said, he’s seen evidence that federal management is failing, including swaths of dead and dying trees and more road closures in travel plans.

“I believe the state can do a better job,” he said.

But Jack Atcheson Jr., chairman of the Wild Sheep Foundation, testified that state lands are managed to produce revenues and not necessarily access while federal lands are managed for multiple use.

“For how we’re being managed right now, no we don’t want new lands managed with heavy-handed rule making,” he said.

Other diverse interests such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wood Products Association agreed that only Congress could legally grant a transfer and has made no indication that it intends to do so.

Creation of the task force would come with a $35,000 general fund appropriation. The study would need to concluded by Sept. 15, 2016.

A committee vote on the bill could come Wednesday, White said.

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