MISSOULA, Mont. – Adam Shaw and his wife, Erin, moved here for the outdoor recreation lifestyle – they bond and hike with their twins on public land and believe the vast open terrain should remain under the control of the federal government.
“Regardless of your political viewpoint, in Montana everybody agrees that those lands are important because we use them for our recreational opportunities,” Shaw said. “Once you take those lands and you transfer them to the state, then you've lost that opportunity for all people, not just me or other folks in Montana, to participate in how the management of those lands are going to be.”
But not everyone in Montana feels that way. Jennifer Fielder, a Montana state senator and CEO of American Lands Council, and her husband, Paul, are outdoor enthusiasts who “enjoy living close to the land.” But they believe the land should be managed by the state.
“We understand that when you make decisions on a more local basis or at least a state basis you tend to get better decisions for your area than you will ever receive from Washington D.C,” Fielder said. “Decisions are being made 2,000 miles away and why should the representatives of eastern states care about western land issues? They don’t understand them, they don’t live here.”
The fate of public lands is at the center of Montana’s Senate race pitting GOP candidate Matt Rosendale against Democrat Jon Tester. About 29 percent of Montana consists of public land and $7 billion of the state’s economy relies on outdoor recreation and tourism.
Eric Austin, Montana State University political science professor, said roughly 75 percent of the population cares about the access and management of public lands – no what matter their political affiliation is. But some believe that if that land goes to the state, it would lead to privatization. Others believe locals know how to better take care of the land than the federal government.
“So, the public lands are important to just about everybody in the state,” Austin said, “and retaining access to those lands is a critical component of that.”
The two candidates have made accessibility to public land a cornerstone of their political campaigns – but they differ on how to manage them. Both vow to fully support public lands and advocate for more public land access.
But while Tester has pledged to retain federal management and ownership of public lands, Rosendale believes local governments know how to manage their land better.
“I’ve been almost in every state in the lower 48—nothing compares with Montana, it’s because of our public lands,” Sen. Tester said after a rally in Kalispell, Mont. “…There’s something about nature that just reinvigorates you, it just makes things real. And in a world that can be pretty artificial, it’s one of the things that the good Lord has given us that help can bring us back to reality.”
Rosendale has touted his work on the state land board, where he pushed for more public land to be used for hunting, fishing and hiking.
“Montana has God’s greatest gifts—they belong to all of us—that’s why I fight for more access to public lands,” Rosendale said in a campaign ad.
Alan Ramlee lives in Kalispell, Mont., and chose to move to the state 20 years ago from the East Coast because of the recreational opportunities Montana offers.
“I don't think there’s a single Montanan, that I know anyway, that has not recreated on public land,” Ramlee said. “It’s (a) critically important of what we do and our heritage here in this state.”
But what divides Montanans is who should oversee those lands.
Shaw said Tester has been a strong public land advocate throughout his political career.
“Sen. Tester’s never, ever wavered on supporting public lands,” Shaw said. “Mr. Rosendale I don’t know as much about on his public lands stance but the fact that he just brought in Sen. [Mike] Lee from Utah who is an ardent transfer of federal public lands to the states proponent, there’s no other conclusion, then, what he’s all about.”
But Fielder said Rosendale understands that federal government shouldn’t interfere in state matters.
“I know that Matt Rosendale would like to see greater state and local control and that he understands the problems with federal land management,” Fielder said. “I think Matt [Rosendale]’s going to be genuine in advocating for more local and state control, less federal interference in our lives.”
Austin, the Montana State professor, said the debate will continue on what public land priorities will be.
“This nationwide priority of ensuring that the wildlife and the natural attributes of those lands are protected not only for us but for future generations…that’ll be contentious but it's exciting,” Austin said. “I think it's something that's really important and is very much unique to the United States—we're a leader in the world, I think, in that way.”