As anticipated from the beginning of the Montana political campaigns, public land access and access to/on federal and state public lands tops the list. It’s also apparent how all the political rhetoric falls far short of addressing the real issue. No, it’s not all about an opened fishing access site along the east Gallatin River. The issue is larger -- related to the millions of acres of federal and state public lands in Montana the majority of these lands which now approach 65 percent are closed off to the public and who closed them.
These public lands are closed off by the very agencies who work for us on OUR land: the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. When you examine a closed road adjacent to large blocks of public land, you see an expensive metal closure adorned with a sign “closed to protect the resource.” What is the specific resource and documented justification? No one knows.
These agencies consider us, the public, destructive if we use our own land for lawful purposes such as hunting, fishing access and just plain walking. More and more acres of our land are closed off every year for nonsense reasons. It all started with the interagency travel map. The bureaucrats in all their wisdom realized if a few road closures are necessary, then even more and more would be better for the agency, not us. Then the maps increased from $4 to nearly $20 -- more government wisdom at work, less and less access on an “access map.” Over the years how many acres have they opened with new roads? They don’t want to talk about it.
The smoke screen still exists: “they will transfer federal lands to Montana to sell.” “They” must be a political opponent. A review of the public land laws of BLM and USFS will solve that debate. These lands are held in public ownership for present and future generations. Only the U.S. Congress can change the public land laws that are then subject to presidential signature. Case closed. The legend on the interagency map would be far shorter if they showed us where we can go.
Selling public lands? Perhaps the Governor and Land Board should tell us why they sold 68,060 acres of OUR state lands after a few spent 12 years getting access to 5.2 million acres with over half of those lands closed off now. Nothing received in land in return and all sold below full market value. A rip-off. The focus should be on agencies responsible for our lands and who is the real villain? No, the problem is not funding; the problem is a waste of the public funding they already have.
Purposeful management of our public lands falls far short of what is necessary and required. When I look at what has happened at Georgetown Lake is a good example. Piney Point has become Clear Cut Point and no plans for more new sites such as on Rainbow Bay or anywhere else. Years ago reforestation was a common practice when we had qualified rangers with degrees in the professional field at the helm; it’s not that way anymore. No plan for any reforestation at Clear Cut Point. Yes, adaptable species spruce and fir replanted seven years ago would be 6 feet tall by now. Spraying for bugs turned out to be a boondoggle and selective cutting with available firewood is unheard of by the USFS. Doing nothing seems to be the landmark of agencies these days.
Do we need some changes and soon? Perhaps a good question to ask to the “all-talk do-nothing politicians.” Check out your favorite hunting area soon; I already found mine recently closed off with no public road planned.
-- Jack D. Jones of Butte worked as a wildlife biologist in Montana for 36 years with the Bureau of Land Management.