OPINION: PAL Act increases access without infringing on property rights

By Sen. Mark Blasdel - April 24th, 2019 - Originally published in the Helena Independent Record

Being an avid sportsman, I have strong convictions that one of the greatest blessings of living in the Treasure State is the ability to enjoy the outdoors. As Montanans, our public lands play a major role in keeping our Montana way of life protected, not only for our generation but also for generations to come.

Unfortunately, accessing and managing our public lands has become a contentious political issue, dividing our state and preventing landowners and public lands advocates from working together.

When good organizations use public lands as a political football, the people who lose are the Montanans the groups represent. It has been my observation that property rights groups and access groups both care about our public lands, it just takes leadership and determination to bring them together. When we put aside our differences to solve complex issues, Montanans win, both now, and in the future.

After hearing from numerous stakeholders -- the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Wildlife Federation, and others -- the Republican majority in the Legislature found that there was more agreement than disagreement. We worked with all of Montana’s stakeholders to create the groundwork for the Public Access to Lands (PAL) Act. Together, we found ways to increase access to public lands without infringing on private property rights.

PAL creates an innovative public lands program based on financially prudent access agreements. These agreements between landowners and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) create access in a balanced way. Landowners determine what guarantees they need to allow the public to cross their property in order to access public lands. FWP then negotiates with the landowner to come to an agreement that benefits both the owner and the public. That final agreement is sent to the Private Lands/Public Wildlife (PL/PW) Council for their review, and they make a recommendation to the Director of FWP about whether or not the access agreement should proceed.

Payments made to landowners are capped at $15,000 per negotiation and the program will receive $1 million per biennium to fund these access agreements. FWP will also receive money to advertise and promote these agreements to bring in landowners and inform the public about new areas open for their use.

These cooperative agreements equally benefit landowners and the public. Montanans win with increased access to our beautiful public lands, and property owners win because their rights are respected and they are reasonably compensated for the time, material and effort that it takes to open access.

By balancing the needs of both groups, PAL initiates a process that could provide public access to millions of acres of lands, with no increased cost to the taxpayer. It has been a pleasure to be the sponsor of this historic piece of legislation. One day my grandchildren will access our public lands using the agreements this legislation created. I hope future legislatures use PAL as a model for how seemingly opposed groups can work together to address complex issues.

I’d like to thank all of the groups who worked on this legislation, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Land Trust Association, Trout Unlimited, Montana FWP, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, United Property Owners of Montana, Montana Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the Montana Bowhunters Association. Also a special thanks needs to go out to Senator Jeff Welborn of Dillon and Senator Doug Kary of Billings for all of the hard work and time they put in. I hope Governor Bullock will sign this bill into law so we can help preserve and promote access to public lands for generations to come.

Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, is Senate Pro Tempore of the Montana Senate.

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