The following remarks were made by Sen. John Walsh on the Senate floor on June 24, 2014, as he sought to introduce legislation to prevent Congress from selling public lands. He also advocated that people watch “Common Ground,” a documentary about the Rocky Mountain Front and legislation he is sponsoring, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. The documentary can be viewed at http://commongrounddoc.com.
I rise today to talk about one of our greatest treasures in this country — our public lands.
Growing up in Butte, Montana, I woke up every day under the morning shadow of the Continental Divide, part of the Deerlodge National Forest. As a kid, my dad would take me fishing on the Big Hole River.
On our living room wall in my parents’ home, there were pictures of three people — John F. Kennedy, George Meany and Jesus. I have carried the values that my parents instilled in me to this day.
I grew up in a Catholic home similar to Montana writer Norman Maclean’s, who wrote in his famous book “A River Runs Through It” that his father, a Presbyterian minister, “told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
As an adult serving in the Montana National Guard, I would ride my mountain bike almost daily all over trails in the Helena National Forest that connect to the streets of our capitol city. And one day, my granddaughter Kennedy will fish and bike these same lands and waters.
These places all have one thing in common beyond being gorgeous and in Montana. They belong to me and you. We all own them.
They are part of what makes living in Montana, and in America, so special. Other countries and other states have lost this heritage. But not in Montana.
Maintaining and improving access to these lands is one of the most important things we can do. That’s why today I am introducing legislation to make it harder to sell off this land. My bill will create a budget point of order in the Senate to block attempts to sell off public land to pay for Congress’ bills.
There is no question that Washington has a spending problem. Since arriving in the Senate, I’ve proposed several ways to rein in out of control spending.
But selling off our kids’ and grandkids’ heritage is a terrible idea. Jeopardizing the countless jobs that rely on our outdoors is a terrible idea.
There is a theory circulating in some parts of the West that the federal government has a continuing duty to dispose of its lands in Western states. What this really means is handing over our most popular recreation areas to the highest out-of-state bidder. That’s good for copper barons and trophy-home developers, but it’s bad for us.
This theory is as radical as it is wrong, as court rulings have repeatedly found. But it’s getting real traction.
Our colleagues in the House of Representatives have passed a budget that could sell off millions of acres of public land — our land — in Montana. I will fight any similar attempts in this chamber.
I want my granddaughter to grow up in a Montana with the same easy access to streams and forests that I enjoyed, whether she wants to hunt, hike, fish or bike.
We also need to get our forests healthy and working again, creating good jobs and making our forests more resilient to wildfires.
Like many Montanans, I’m frustrated with how long it takes to conduct a timber sale or complete an environmental analysis of potential projects. Even simple projects get tied up in court, and our rural communities and the land itself suffers for it.
But the solution isn’t to hand the keys over to special interests and walk away. The solution is to manage the land — from the ground up.
In Montana, tourism is critical to our economy. Outdoor recreation supports 64,000 jobs and generates $5.8 billion in revenue annually. Cutting off access or selling the land to out-of-state development is a direct threat to jobs in Montana.
Turning over land to the states is just one step away from privatizing it. And there is no question that private land is the misguided ultimate goal by many who don’t understand our outdoor heritage in the west.
In the year 2000, I led the response of the Montana National Guard to the wildfires that year that consumed over 1 million acres of Montana land that summer.
The Departments of Agriculture and Interior have spent about $1.8 billion annually to fight wildfires in the last five years. States simply cannot afford that price tag. One bad wildfire season could bankrupt a state.
I want to share a little more what is at stake here: Under the Ryan Budget in the House, with an auction of our public lands, Montana hunters could lose access to the elk wallows of the Pioneer Mountains.
You might hear elk bugling on Tenderfoot Creek in the Little Belts, but it could be on private land instead of land protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Montanans could be shut out of the Missouri River Breaks, locked out of putting a canoe in or hunting a mule deer or sheep.
We could lose the Rocky Mountain Front, facing padlocks and orange signs instead of open space and the chance for a bighorn sheep tag.
Under the House plan, anglers in Montana could lose the headwaters of Rock Creek or the Smith River and the chance to sink a perfect fly from a streamside the public owns.
Despite years of effort to secure access, we could be shut out of land around the Three Dollar Bridge south of Bozeman that helped kids like me, growing up, fish in our own blue-ribbon streams. The same thing could happen to the Centennials and Swan.
We could lose the best that Eastern Montana has to offer, from the monster bucks and turkeys on the Custer National Forest to the duck factory of the BLM’s prairie potholes.
Under the House plan, we could be facing closed roads, closed trails, and closed land in the Gallatin National Forest that thousands of Montanans worked together twenty years ago to keep open and keep public forever.
Montana is the Last Best Place because we can hunt, fish, hike and play on land that we all own. I will fight to keep that way.