Tester talks public lands at panels in Bozeman

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Jason Bacaj

Sen. Jon Tester came to Bozeman Friday morning to talk with folks about how they use public land and how management of that land could be improved.

Funding to maintain public land and manage federal and state forest properties is facing “extreme cuts” in the next few months as Congress works to tighten the national budget, Tester said.

Roughly 75 people showed up to the Emerson Cultural Center auditorium to listen to two panels of businesspeople from the outdoor industry and public land agency officials and share their thoughts with Tester.

Panelists bounced from how to incentivize good stewardship for ranchers and the need for proper land management to speculating why outdoor recreation companies are thriving in the poor economy.

“Montana’s got a lot of public land it needs to protect,” said Bozeman resident Sunny Dulin.

The 74-year-old moved to Montana from California years ago as he began to raise a family, drawn by the atmosphere experienced during years of hunting trips to the northern Rockies. Now, Dulin is concerned about what he views as the increasing privatization of hunting grounds. It limits places the average person can hunt and could hurt the state’s tourism industry, which, bringing in $2.5 billion each year, is the second largest industry in Montana.

High water levels this year showed panelist Marya Spoja, manager of Livingston’s Sweetwater Fly Shop, how limited access to public areas can affect business.

Some canceled vacations; some went elsewhere. Clients that did show were taken fishing in “pay to play” places. Spoja didn’t quantify the effect on Sweetwater and Livingston’s summer business, but acknowledged that both dipped.

“(Public access is) part of the backbone of our small communities,” Spoja said.

Access points to public rivers and streams are created and maintained by federal money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, said Tom Reilly, panelist and assistant administrator in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Money from offshore oil and gas drilling is pumped into the fund and divvied between states based on population. But with Congress committed to tightening the budget, more and more money from offshore drilling has been siphoned off to other areas.

Last year, Montana received about $175,000 from the fund, Reilly told the crowd.

Several of those asking questions after the panel finished thanked Tester for supporting public lands and advocating land management.

Standing in front of a couple television cameras on the side of the stage after the meeting, Tester said he took away a few good ideas and a feel for the concerns of the people of Bozeman, as well as four pages of notes.

Tester said he wants to secure permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and protect the public lands worth so much — economically and spiritually — to Montanans.

“In the months and months ahead, we’ll make some tough decisions,” Tester said. “Folks in rural America shouldn’t shoulder more than their share of the burden.”