When you have hunted, hiked, worked, and snowmobiled — you name it — on Forest Service land for decades you can begin to feel as if you had an entitlement to that land. Call it the right of possession by proximity and use; but because no one knows that land like we do, or uses it like we do, we feel we should have a say in how it’s managed.
Some people think Montana should have the ownership, as well, and that’s going too far.
First of all, when Montana was granted statehood in 1889, we agreed to the terms of the Enabling Act passed by Congress creating Montana, Washington, and the Dakotas:
“That the people inhabiting said proposed States do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof … .”
In a state where a handshake is as good as a contract, we need to remember what we agreed to, and that that agreement is incorporated in Article I of the Montana Constitution: “Compact with the United States.”
You may hear it said that the land should be “given back” to the states, but that land never belonged to the states in the first place. What is now Montana east of the Divide was the property, fee simple, of the United States of America by right of purchase from France in 1803.
West of the Divide it became America’s through the 1846 Oregon Treaty with Great Britain.
When we gained statehood, the U.S. distributed some of that land to Montana, much of it dedicated to the support of educational institutions. The rest remained in federal hands to be disposed of as Congress sees fit.
But, still, it can gall. All that land within our reach but beyond our management. We resent the fact that the other 317 million Americans (the other 99.61 percent of the nation) have a say it telling us what to do on it. We look at today’s unemployment figures and resent that billions of board feet of timber cannot be harvested to create jobs and make life better for us, like the old days.
But those old days weren’t all milk and honey. The earliest unemployment records by county that are available go back only to 1990, (and I thank the Montana Census and Economic Information Center for finding them for me). In the three counties in northwest Montana whose economies were almost exclusively timber based the 1990 unemployment rates were: Lincoln, 12.4: Sanders, 11.2; and Mineral, 8.9. Keep in mind this was during some of the peak timber production years on the Kootenai and Lolo National Forests.
Wages in the mills were attractive, it is true, but they were made attractive through the collective bargaining efforts of labor unions, and it begs asking if the proponents of this deal support collective bargaining?
Why is this radical issue even before us? It is a cause in search of an acceptable rationale, which in this case is economic development. The true rationale finds its roots in those radical, anti-any-kind-of-government organizations and individuals who would prefer anarchy to democracy, the people who brought us the “blueprint for secession” of the 2011 Legislature.
The issue of who owns the land was settled at statehood. Pursuing the topic legislatively is a futile exercise and a waste of time and money. There are better, faster and even realistic ways to create jobs, and the first of these is to stop fighting with the federal government over fractious, insoluble issues so that businesses — which value stability — won’t be afraid to come here with their jobs.
Jim Elliott is a former state senator who represented Mineral, Sanders, and parts of Lincoln and Missoula Counties.