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Ochenski: Mountains of molehills

Republicans fear and pandering on state lands

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Secretary of State Bob Brown and the Montana GOP should apologize to Montanans for their gross misrepresentation of the recent ruling by Montana District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock. What Sherlock ruled on—and what has been blown totally out of proportion by Brown and the GOP—is whether or not a statute concerning how grazing leases are awarded on state lands precludes the options of Montana’s Board of Land Commissioners to act in the best interests of the State’s School Trust.

The Board of Land Commissioners, which is more commonly known as the Land Board, acts as trustee for Montana’s 5.2 million acres of state lands, and is comprised of the state’s highest elected officials: Gov. Judy Martz, Attorney General Mike McGrath, Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Bob Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, and State Auditor John Morrison.

When Montana joined the union just over a century ago, the federal government ceded millions of acres to the state to hold safe and use to generate funds for the state’s educational system and institutions. Some states, such as Nevada, sold off most of their state lands almost immediately. Montana, however, held these public lands precious and still does.

While Montana’s Constitution names the Land Board as trustee for these lands, the day-to-day administration is determined by the Legislature through statutes that direct the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) on how the lands are to be managed.

The statute that Judge Sherlock ruled unconstitutional gives prior grazing lease holders an “absolute preference right” when state lands are put up to bid. What this means is that if the existing leaseholder meets the high bid price when the lands come up for their 10-year lease renewal they are, by law, automatically awarded the lease.

In the specific case on which Judge Sherlock ruled, the existing leaseholder met the high bid, but then turned right around and petitioned the Department of Natural Resources for a lease reduction and wound up paying less than half the high bid. That, however, is not what Sherlock ruled was unconstitutional.

Instead, the judge found that because the statute mandates that the lease go to the existing leaseholder if the high bid is met, it removes the ability of the Land Board to make a decision about what is in the best long-term interests of the School Trust. Simply put, the existing law overrides the Board’s authority as trustee, and hence violates the Montana Constitution.

To listen to those who are trying to make political hay over this, you would think the sky was falling. Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Bob Brown, for instance, fanned the flames of baseless fear with his statement, which was circulated on the GOP’s e-brief: “Right now it’s very scary for lessees across our state. Thousands of lessees are wondering if they will lose the very lands they’re counting on for their future. It’s vitally important that we realize the livelihood of 6,000 existing agricultural and grazing lessees around our state is at stake.”

Meanwhile, the GOP itself led into Brown’s fear-mongering statement with one of its own: “In a decision last week, State District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock reversed years of precedence on grazing laws and has expanded opportunities for unreasonable environmentalists to hamper agriculture production. Sherlock’s decision opens the door for environmental groups to undercut producers in the state lease bidding process and steal lease acreages from family operations.”

Both of these statements are wildly inaccurate—which is perhaps why Brown was so quiet during Monday’s Land Board meeting when the issue was discussed. If, in fact, there was some crisis at the level which Brown’s and the GOP’s inflammatory rhetoric indicates, you would have expected the hearing to be jammed with ranchers, white-faced in fear at losing “their futures” as “environmental groups undercut producers…and steal lease acreages.” Instead, the two representatives of the Stockgrowers Association who were present in the room didn’t say a word during the public comment period.

The reality, as best articulated by State Auditor John Morrison, is that the next Legislature will likely be asked to add four little words to the faulty statute to make it constitutional, and they will be: “with Land Board approval.” Hence, the preference right will still exist, but the Land Board will have to approve the lease in cases of contested bids.

What this boils down to is NO BIG DEAL. Brown and the GOP know this and should be ashamed of their intentional misrepresentation of the issue. Their radical reaction is not only off base, it is intended to turn Montanans against each other. The Republican Party wants to somehow make this appear to be a threat from “unreasonable environmentalists,” but the truth is that the suit on which Sherlock ruled was brought by one rancher against another. There were no “environmental groups” involved on either side—unless, of course, you believe the Stockgrowers’ rap that ranchers are the “original environmentalists.”

The divisive tactics used by Brown and the GOP in this instance should be repugnant to all Montanans. Faced with a reasonable ruling in which they couldn’t attack an “activist judge,” they sought to shift the blame onto environmentalists and put unwarranted fear into Montana’s ranching community. This is no way to run a state, and Montanans would do well to take cautious note of those who want to “lead” us, but would stoop so quickly to misconstrue an issue strictly for their own political benefit.

Furthermore, these are public lands dedicated to raise money for education. Neither Bob Brown nor DNRC miss an opportunity to exhort the Land Board to “maximize revenue” for schools—especially when it involves timber harvests. So why are they suddenly barking out the other end now?

Montanans need and deserve levelheaded discussion of the issues that affect our future—not the fear-mongering and hypocrisy which seem to be the political trademarks of the Republican Party these days.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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