Water Rights Protection Act a step backward for public land

by Jim Vashro
| July 9, 2020 1:00 AM

Flathead Wildlife Inc., has been the largest sportsmen and women club in northwest Montana for 64 years. One of our primary goals is preserving public access to public lands. Accordingly, FWI is opposed to S. 3019, The Montana Water Rights Protection Act, as currently worded.

Water rights are complex and FWI cannot judge if the current proposal is a good one. Certainly it would be good to remove uncertainty around the water rights claims by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and to improve the quantity and distribution of water and fishery habitat within the Flathead Reservation. However, the “miscellaneous provisions” of S. 3019 would transfer more than 55,000 acres of public lands to the CSKT, including the 18,600 acre National Bison Range and 36,808 acres of state school trust lands. FWI does not agree with using public lands as trading stock or see how that would improve the quantity and distribution of water available to CSKT.

Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, Sr., who were not CSKT but married tribal members, developed a bison herd in the late 1800s. Allard’s heirs sold their portion of the herd in 1901, primarily to Charles Conrad, Pablo later sold his bison to Canada. The American Bison Society worked with Congress to establish the NBR in 1908-09 and populated it with bison from Conrad’s herd. Without intervention, those lands could have been homesteaded and this discussion would be moot. A 1970s court case directed further payment to CSKT to settle a fair price for the NBR.

S. 3019 only says the Bison Range will be managed for public access and wildlife and noxious weeds will be controlled. The current NBR budget is $1 million, about half normal levels. The NBR is the 10th most visited national wildlife refuge with a $5 entrance fee subsidized by the U.S. government. CSKT is well financed but the NBR would be a significant expense.

In the 1980s, CSKT were given 30 bison to start their own herd but sold them after a year as too expensive. What will happen if CSKT decides they cannot sustain the NBR? More importantly, population geneticists say you need 1,000 animals to maintain genetic fitness. The NBR, and most federal herds, are not that large so they are managed as a meta-population with regular exchanges of bison. The NBR herd has the purest genetics, loss of those bison would impact all federal herds.

FWI has commented several times on NBR management. Our comments were displayed along with others so we could see how public opinion shaped decisions and we can appeal to higher authorities if we disagree. Meeting with the CSKT Tribal Council would be daunting and as a sovereign nation there is nothing to dictate they listen to us. Talking to Senator Daines’ staff, it was apparent there were a lot of secret negotiations on S. 3019 as CSKT often demands.

DNRC manages 36,808 acres of school trust lands on the Flathead Reservation including some valuable timberlands and Flathead lakeshore such as the 110 acre Elmo site which was once a state park, then a state fishing access and now leased by Lake County as a fishing access. S. 3019 would transfer the lands to CSKT, in return Montana would receive equivalent federal public lands. But that is a net loss of public lands. If not all state land can be exchanged, public land would be traded for private lands in the reservation, another loss. CSKT generally allows use of their lands but as a sovereign nation there is nothing to guarantee that will continue.

FWI thinks a better solution would be for S. 3019 to purchase lands recently acquired by Southern Pines Plantation from Weyerhauser to trade to DNRC. CSKT would get 36,808 acres, the SPP lands acquired by DNRC would remain available for timber harvest, wildlife habitat and public access with no net loss.

Most people are not aware that 55,000 acres of public lands are offered as trading stock in S. 3019, including the National Bison Range. Past proposals to transfer the NBR have met with majority opposition. The NBR transfer should not be buried in a complex water rights settlement but should be in a stand-alone bill, to pass or fail on its own merits.

There are a number of slick ads running right now urging passage of S. 3019 to save $400 million. That must be the value of the public lands but the Damage Assessment is secret. Most of the groups pushing S. 3019 don’t believe the government should own lands, they see trading public lands to protect private water rights as a good deal. Flathead Wildlife disagrees. Senators Daines and Tester worked to pass the Great American Outdoors Recreation Act, that was a huge step forward for public lands. FWI sees S. 3019 as a big step backwards.

—Jim Vashro is Flathead Wildlife Board President