The House Democratic Candidates In Their Own Words: Protecting Public Lands

A few months ago, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote an editorial discussing the importance of focusing on the issues in the race for U.S. Congress. While I couldn’t agree more with the Chronicle’s position, thus far much of the coverage of the race has been about fundraising and the occasional public event, with little substantive coverage of the differences between the Democratic candidates running to challenge Greg Gianforte.

Given the quality of these Democratic candidates, we thought we’d do our part to give readers a chance to learn about where each stands on critical issues facing the state and nation, so I sent out questions on public lands, the economy, poverty, healthcare reform, and foreign policy to the candidates.

We’ll feature their responses to each over the next five days.

Question 1. Why are you the best candidate to protect Montana from the Trump administration’s assault on our public lands? Are there specific proposals you’d bring forward or support to ensure that our forests, monuments, and parks will be preserved for future generations?

John Heenan

Montanans from all background have been enjoying our public lands for generations. Whether you hunt, fish, or recreate in other ways, public lands are a place to enjoy the outdoors that is free and open to all. We rely on these spaces to pass on our love and appreciation of Montana’s splendor to our children and grandchildren.

Special interest groups and their allies within the federal government are trying to take away our public lands. I will oppose any efforts that restrict the rights of Montanans to access our public lands. I also oppose the reduction in size of our national parks, forests, and monuments. Our public lands are not for sale–plain and simple.

Rather that reducing the size of our national forests, monuments, and parks, I will introduce legislation to protect other places of significance. I pledge to work with members of both parties to preserve lands that are unique because of their sheer beauty or due to their cultural and/or historic significance. Agencies such as the National Parks Service and US Forest Service need to be fully funded in order to ensure proper management of these areas.

Lynda Moss

As the Montana member of the U.S. Congress, my overarching goal is to represent our public land heritage and values. I will share our values with other Congressional leaders to ensure policies protect public lands across the country.

I support public land policy positions that provide good-paying jobs and help Main Street businesses; that provide access for recreation, hunting, and fishing; and that ensure the health of the landscape is protected for the next generation. The goal of natural resources and environmental policy should be to foster vibrant economies, livable communities and healthy landscapes.

Federal lands in Montana are significant economic assets. While every county has its own set of unique circumstances, numerous studies have concluded that federal public lands in the West, including lands in rural counties, can be an important economic asset that extends beyond tourism and recreation to attract people and businesses.

I will work on policies relating to public lands. Those will include policies relevant to Montana communities and which address public safety and public health affected by wildfires. I will support policies focused on dedicated funding for wildfires and forest ecology practices, conservation funding as well as maintaining access to public lands. Protecting wilderness areas and wilderness study areas and keeping federal lands in Montana in federal ownership will be fundamental to my work in Congress.

Kathleen Williams

I have lived the outdoors since I was a small child. It’s my sanctuary. It’s where I get my renewal. With a 33-year career in outdoor recreation planning and natural resources policy, I have brokered win-win solutions to thorny issues across a variety of landscapes, stakeholder interests, and issues. During my legislative service, I stood up to nefarious proposals that would have weakened our environmental protections and transferred public lands.

As a former employee of public land agencies, I know how they work and can operate in a creative, bipartisan way to protect their budgets and missions.

Specific proposals include:

  • End the practice of “fire borrowing,” which saps our agencies of funds needed to manage lands for public use and ecosystem health.
  • Support Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, the East Rosebud Wild & Scenic designation and restrictions on mining expansion in the Paradise Valley.
  • Oppose entrance fee increases at our national parks, so that our outdoor legacy remains accessible to all of us and our children.

I am the only candidate with extensive policy experience in natural resources. I will hit the ground running in DC to reinstate and protect crucial environmental protections that have been rolled back or threatened by this Administration. We need a champion for the outdoors in Congress who will preserve the natural heritage that is so critical to Montanans and our economy.

Jared Pettinato

I defended public lands for nine years while I served at the U.S. Department of Justice, and I have far more experience and expertise with federal natural resources law than any other candidate. I defended Forest Service projects on the Helena, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests, along with projects throughout the United States. The courts use my interpretation of Lee Metcalf’s Montana Wilderness Study Act.

My nine years of negotiating those complex public lands issues showed me the depth of knowledge and expertise one needs before negotiating effectively. Building up that statutory, scientific, and relationship expertise takes time. You could elect someone else and wait nine years for that person to gain that experience, or you could elect me, and I could start immediately.

Those experiences also showed me opportunities to invest in your tomorrow, and to build Montana for the future. We can use the money that grows on trees to manage forests and to reduce high-severity wildfires. We can encourage our forests to grow healthy for the trees, for the wildlife, and for the people who use the forests—while restoring fire to its natural role in the system.

We burned 1.2 million acres of forests last year, and we lost $240 million in tourism. Remember the smoke: too thick to see and too hazardous to breathe. We don’t have to live like this.

We have four options for addressing this our forests’ condition:

  1. Cut down all the trees.
  2. Let ’em burn. Stop suppressing wildfires.
  3. Continue with the current strategies.
  4. Manage the forests more effectively to restore fire to its natural role in the system.

Few people would choose the first two options. Economics and ecology foreclose the third option: continuing current strategies. Wildfire costs are increasing, so the Forest Service does not have the money to plan the projects to treat the forest. That leaves us with managing the forests more effectively.

To be clear, Congress currently gives the Forest Service a fixed budget with instructions to fight wildfires and to manage the forests with any money left over. That worked in the 1990s when wildfire fighting took 16 % of the budget; now, it takes over 50 %, and by 2025, it will take over 66 %. As a result, the Forest Service does not have enough money to plan forest health projects proactively, to restore watersheds, or otherwise to manage the forests. In the meantime, wildfires burn hotter.

We can fix this. Not in wilderness areas. Not in wilderness study areas. We can focus on the areas we have managed into conditions that cause high-severity wildfire. There, we took out the largest trees in the forest for eighty years and suppressed wildfires for eighty years. Those past actions left us with dead trees and branches on the ground and spindly trees. Now, when fire comes through, it burns hotter, and it lifts into the canopy to cause high-severity wildfire. We have a responsibility to fix this system.

We start with money-making work thinning overstocked forests, which can be healthy for the remaining trees because they can grow large when they’re not competing with so many trees over water and sunlight. We couple that with money-losing work removing the branches and dead trees. Then, we can create timber jobs, preserve tourism jobs, reduce high-severity wildfires, and make the forest healthier for everyone.

Grant Kier

My older brother and I were raised by a single mom, who worked as hard as she could just to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. We didn’t have a lot as kids, but we had access to public lands where we felt like kings. Some of my best and first memories are of us out in wide open country where we hiked, camped, fished, and hunted. The sense that in those spaces we had the freedom do anything inspired the sense that with our future we could become anything. Protecting these opportunities for Montanans today and for future generations is a core value for me.

In my career I did more than just protect public lands. For that past decade I helped communities throughout western Montana create new public lands, and expand access to existing public lands and Montana’s rivers. My work enhanced the quality of life for Montanans and allow communities to expand their economies around recreation and tourism, including access for hunting and fishing, non-motorized trails, ADA compliant trails, and trails for snowmobiles and ATV’s.

When Theodore Roosevelt set out to establish our extraordinary public lands, he recognized that these places came at a cost to local communities. He made a deal with local governments to ensure that they would be fairly compensated by the federal government for the impact federal lands had on their tax base and revenue. Much has changed since this system was first established, and while the payment systems have tried to adapt, they have not kept pace. These payments are unpredictable for local governments and fail to recognize the diverse ways in which our public lands provide value and generate revenue.

When in office I will work on a more predictable and sustainable method of fairly compensating Montana’s local governments for federal public lands they proudly host and steward, so that they are not financially penalized for the tremendous benefits these places offer our country and future generations.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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