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Montana governor vetoes public land task force bill

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's governor vetoed a bill Monday he said would have created a task force to study the transfer or sell-off of public lands.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock rejected the act that would create a public land task force to study state and federal land management. It was the only major public-lands management bill that made it through the 2015 Legislature, despite the backing of Republicans who added to their party platform last year the transfer of federal lands to the state.

Republican Rep. Kerry White of Bozeman originally introduced the bill as a "transfer of public land feasibility task force," but the final version removed that overt language.

Bullock said in a veto letter that he believes the intent remained the same.

"A careful reading of the bill ... reveals that the transfer of public lands is still very much in the sights of the task force," he said, referring specifically to wording that calls for examining the entities best suited to manage public lands. "I do not support any effort that jeopardizes or calls into question the future of our public lands heritage."

A study group approved by the 2013 Legislature turned in short order to the topic of land transfer, Bullock added, although some lawmakers have denied that was the purpose.

White did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday, but he and Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, have worked with the Utah-based American Lands Council on transfer issues. The organization is behind much of the push for land transfer in a handful of western states.

Council President Ken Ivory, who is also a Utah lawmaker, said Tuesday the organization has seen the most success in Utah where the state is in the midst of hiring special legal counsel to file a lawsuit against the federal government for not transferring lands. In 2012, Utah passed a law demanding the federal government give control of more than 30 million acres of land to the state. That deadline went unanswered.

Ivory said his group will continue to try to educate Montanans about the issue. "I'm confident that Montanans will come to the conclusion that they are better stewards and they are better to determine the unique interests in Montana than 532 members of Congress who aren't from Montana," he said.

About 29 percent of land in Montana is federally owned, while in other western states the amount of federal land tops 50 percent, Ivory said. The state of Montana potentially could lay claim to about 21.6 million acres, or about four times as much land currently managed by the state.

Bullock has said the state cannot afford to manage those lands and that the state would be forced to sell at least some it to pay for managing the rest. "Exposing our pocketbook to the costs associated with federal lands management is not sensible," he wrote in his veto letter.

Bullock also said there is little doubt that federal management needs to improve and his administration is working hard to make it better through initiatives such as his Forests in Focus program.

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