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Those who pay have the say on public lands

Bozeman Chronicle
December 3, 2007

By Terry L. Anderson

Montanans are upset that 8 million acres of BLM lands rich in wildlife habitat and open for public access could be disturbed by energy development. So far this year, the federal government has held five sales, leasing nearly 640,000 acres of its Montana land for energy exploration and development. Six more sales are planned for 2008. This push is driven by rising energy prices and potential royalty, rent, and bonus revenues for the government. In 2006 alone such revenues amounted to $94.5 million on BLM lands.

Not surprisingly, hunters whose numbers are declining and who pay nothing for their use of public lands aren’t getting much attention from the BLM. Indeed, recreational activities on federal lands are the biggest money loser for the government. For example, between 1998 and 2001, recreation on national forest and BLM lands lost $295 million per year while timber lost $172 million, grazing lost $101 million, and mineral and energy production netted a positive sum of $1.431 billion.

Jack Ward Thomas, former Chief of the Forest Service under President Clinton, recently noted that "the federal lands are a liability when they should be an asset." And he wasn’t just referring to the economics; our federal lands are often an environmental liability, too, witness the wildfire problem throughout the West.

The potential infusion of funds from energy development might reduce some of the fiscal liability. Calls by sportsmen and women to stop energy development, however, are likely to fall on deaf ears and do nothing to return the federal estate to an asset status.

If sportsmen and women were willing to pay recreational access fees and create another stream of revenue for the agency, they might get more attention from federal land managers Having multiple revenue streams for multiple uses, supposedly the mantra of land management, would motivate agencies to weigh the alternatives.

State land management in Montana provides a model. Unlike the federal government, state lands generate revenues from virtually all activities. Hunters, fishermen, and other recreationists pay token fees, amounting to about $1 million annually. Some of the revenues pay to improve land management and the rest helps pay for public schools. Sportsmen need to recognize that those who pay the bills don’t need to raise their voices to be heard. When hunting and fishing generate income along with minerals, it clearly gives sportsmen a place at the table, a voice in the discussion.

In addition to reducing the fiscal liability, paying fees could help reduce the environmental liability. If they were willing to pay recreational access fees to use federal land, more money would be available to improve wildlife habitat, to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and to restore areas damaged by overuse.

Having a place at the fiscal and management table along with commodity users might also open doors for the development of new, flexible, and innovative approaches to federal land management. In wildlife areas that can withstand little or no disturbance, sportsmen joined by environmentalists might pursue special surface easements that would provide the needed protection as well as income to the agency.

Fiscal prudence might also create innovative joint venture leases with sportsmen, environmental groups, and energy companies finding ways to cooperate to improve management. Royalties from successful energy development, for example, might be plowed back into the lands to protect and enhance wildlife and habitat.

Montana recreationists may consider free access to public land a birthright, but as Bob Dylan put it, "for the times they are a changin’." The concept of recreational fees on federal lands may be a tough one to swallow, but they might just help return our federal lands to asset status. Fiscal and environmental responsibility is going to require more from Montanans than in the past. The facts speak for themselves. Those who pay have a say.

Terry L. Anderson is the executive director of PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a native Montanan and a lifelong hunter.


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