By Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder – R, Thompson Falls
January 30, 2014
Among the bigger issues we continue addressing during the legislative interim are the proposed Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe (CSKT) Water Compact and problems with federal land management. These are high priorities because land and water policies directly affect Montana’s economy, environment, health, safety, property values, employment opportunities, funding for public services, and the quality of life so important to present and future generations.
If we can iron out the most significant concerns with both the water compact and federally managed public lands, our communities will be better off in nearly every regard. These are huge issues. Seeking real, positive solutions is not easy, but it’s well worth the effort.
The legislature’s recent hearings on these topics drew unusually large crowds to the State capitol. The all-day meetings extended well into the night as experts, citizens, and legislators debated these critical issues.
Although the days were painfully long, the discussions were excellent. I was pleased the committee chairmen kept us late to allow every citizen a chance to speak.
While some legislators ignore public comment, I highly value what citizens have to say — especially those who travel so far on their own time to testify. It was encouraging to see so many well-informed citizens from western Montana deliver carefully researched facts on land and water issues. I saw signs of hope as opponents and proponents listened to each other and found some areas of agreement.
Many citizens, Indian and non-Indian alike, agree it would be desirable to have a tribal water compact of some sort. Many also agree that serious questions remain about the current proposal’s impact on existing water rights, property values, crops, and livestock. There is understandable concern over placing the water rights of non-Indian people under an experimental new tribal administration, as well as the notion of expanding tribal and federal jurisdiction to waters well outside the Flathead Reservation boundary.
It appears most of western Montana would be impacted in some way by this unprecedented new water law, yet we have little idea to what extent because there is nothing like this compact and no studies have been done.
Since an approved Compact would become a FINAL agreement between the state, the tribe, and the federal government that can never be changed, it is absolutely imperative to ensure it is wise and fair for ALL the affected people. You wouldn’t expect anyone to object to independent analysis of the compact, but the Governor already has. Some are even pushing for a special session to force legislative approval of the compact without further consideration.
You may recall that rather than approve the highly complex water compact when it came before us late in the 2013 session, the legislature ordered the state’s Water Policy Interim Committee (WPIC) to perform a study of the Compact and its 1,000 plus pages of technical documents. To our dismay Governor Bullock vetoed that bill.
At January’s Environmental Quality Council (EQC), twenty five legislators made a formal request for an independent interim evaluation of the social, economic, and environmental impacts associated with the proposed CSKT Compact.
We must get the facts on the table so citizens and legislators can logically assess the impacts of this permanent new law BEFORE a vote is taken. It will be up to the EQC to decide whether or not to order the studies. I serve on that committee and will do what I can to ensure we pursue the information necessary to make informed decisions.
One of the other highly intriguing discussions during our January hearings was the subject of transferring federally managed public lands to the state. The EQC heard excellent testimony on this topic from a diverse panel of experts who debated the legal, economic, and environmental advantages of states stepping forward to assume management responsibilities.
After hearing the arguments, nearly every citizen and county commissioner present testified in favor of the land transfer. The idea made headline news across the state. Even the Governor has gone on record acknowledging state land management is far superior to federal.
I will write more on these topics and others as interim efforts progress. In the meanwhile, you can find additional information and connect with me at www.jenniferfielder.us.