Montana Bans Land Sales to Federal Government

Published August 1, 2003

In protest of the federal government’s over-reaching and its mismanagement of public lands, Montana has become the first state in the union to prohibit the sale of state lands to the federal government.

An amendment to House Bill 223, authored by Rep. Rick Maedje (R-Fortine) and signed into law by Republican Governor Judy Martz, directs that “State land may not be sold to the federal government or to any agency of the federal government, except for the purpose of building federal facilities and structures.” The exception for federal structures comports with Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes the federal government to purchase land, with the consent of the home state’s legislature, for the erection of necessary federal buildings.

“This is an accomplishment I am very, very proud of,” said Maedje. “I am not prepared in any way, shape, or form to see a single acre of state land wind up in the federal government’s hands. Not only does the federal government fail to pay taxes on land it holds, but even the PILT payments (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) it promises us never come through.

“Worse yet,” he continued, “Montana has had nothing but serious problems in the last 30 years with virtually every acre the federal government claims to have jurisdiction over in this state. Selling the feds our state land is like rubbing salt in a wound.”

HB 223 authorizes the state land board to sell lands held in trust by the state for the purpose of raising income for public schools. The bill authorizes the sale only of lands that are not producing income. The bill further gives the land board discretion to purchase other lands in the place of unproductive property.

“I don’t disagree with the underlying purpose of the bill at all,” said Maedje. “It’s entirely appropriate for the State Land Board to look for better timber, mining, and grazing lands for the schools. But there was a serious unintended consequence–the present state lands could wind up in the hands of the federal government, and that is entirely inappropriate in Montana.

“House Bill 223 came through the Natural Resources Committee, and I saw the real opportunity to add a friendly amendment to the bill to begin to stop federal land acquisitions in our state,” said Maedje.

Rep. Chris Harris (D-Bozeman) lambasted the amendment on the House floor, arguing that “Iraq could buy this land. North Korea could buy this land, but our own red, white, and blue federal government can’t buy this land. This is wrong.”

Responded Maedje, “The Constitution never intended the federal government to increase its land holdings or jurisdictional influence without the consent of the people of a state. Regrettably, over the last 30 years the federal government has overstepped its authority, and its abuse of that authority directly conflicts with the economic vitality, character, and traditions of the people of Montana.

“Montanans have been patient,” Maedje said. We have tried to work with federal agencies, but we have intelligently arrived at the conclusion that federal agencies have little or no incentive to abide by the federal Constitution.. So, we’re now going to help them get back on track.

“This amendment to HB 223 is the first step in a calculated effort not only to put the brakes on federal land acquisitions, but in future legislative sessions, we will take intelligent, lawful steps such as this to roll back federal land holdings and jurisdictional authority,” Maedje said. “Montana is the first state in the nation to prohibit the federal government from purchasing state lands. This is an historic step for any state to take, and federal agencies should be well aware that Montana will continue to assert our rights as a state, and we take this issue very, very seriously.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].