Monday, August 18, 2014

Bipartisanship on the Flathead

In case you missed it in the your local newspaper, I am posting below an opinion piece regarding the Flathead Reservation water compact, authored by me and Bruce Tutvedt. Bruce is a Republican senator from Kalispell who, in his non-legislative life, is a farmer-irrigator and represents constituents who have a substantial interest in how the compact turns out. He has been outspoken in his support, which has not always been an easy thing to do. My connection to this issue is that I have been serving on the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission since 2011, and have been of the Flathead compact negotiating team.

As members of the Montana Senate who come from opposing parties, we have often found ourselves disagreeing about political values, legislative proposals and our constituents’ interests. But one thing we do agree on is that there are times when we all should leave our politics, animosity and distrust at the door and work together to find practical, fair solutions to pressing issues. That’s why we support the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact and will work for its approval by the 2015 Legislature.

Over three decades ago, the Montana Legislature recognized the potential for serious conflict between the reserved water rights claimed by Federal agencies and Indian tribes, and the state based rights claimed by farmers and ranchers, state and local governments, households, and businesses. Rather than letting these conflicts be resolved by courts after long and expensive legal wrangling, the Legislature set up the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and charged it with settling disputes out of court, through negotiation.

Montana’s compacting process has been an outstanding success. It’s taken a while, but we now have 17 negotiated compacts that resolve all outstanding Federal reserved water rights claims, except those on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The reason for that success is that negotiation in good faith works, and it is working in the Flathead.

Although there is still an important piece of the agreement being negotiated, the State, the Federal government and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have already agreed to a settlement that complies with Montana’s Constitution and water laws and will

·    Allow the adjudication of water rights on the reservation to be completed, giving households, businesses, farmers and ranchers clear title to their water rights and providing certainty regarding ownership of the private properties to which those rights are attached.
·          Protect all existing on-reservation, non-irrigation water rights from call by the Tribes.
·        Make a substantial amount of water from Hungry Horse reservoir available to mitigate the impact of future development in the Flathead and Clark Fork drainages.
·        Provide for the infusion of both State and Federal funds to improve the efficiency and infrastructure of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
·    Recognize historic Tribal claims to water for fisheries off the reservation in a way that protects almost all existing off-reservation irrigation use.
·       Create an authority for managing on-Reservation water rights in the future in which the Tribes and the State will participate as equal partners.
·        Quantify a right to water that the Tribes can use for development on the Reservation or lease off the Reservation but within Montana.

The piece of the Compact still being negotiated concerns the allocation of water between the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and in-stream flow to protect fisheries on the many waterways on the Reservation. The goal of all the parties is to assure that through improvements to the project and its operation, senior Tribal claims for in-stream flows to promote healthy fisheries will be recognized without curtailing crop consumptive use of water by Project irrigators.

While we believe that the Compact is a good deal for all parties concerned, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that it has run into bitter and strident opposition as well. We think that much of that opposition is based on fear, old animosities and misunderstanding of what the Compact does and doesn’t do. It simply isn’t true, for example, that the Compact will “take” water rights or private property. It won’t “give the Tribes control over all the water in western Montana.” It won’t end ranching and farming on the Reservation.

These fears and misunderstandings concern us deeply, and we urge all Montanans to take the time to examine closely what has been achieved in these negotiations and to consider carefully the implications of rejecting this agreement. We believe that rejection would lead to years of litigation, untold costs to be borne by individuals and very little prospect of a court determined outcome superior to the benefits the compact now provides.

But our support for this Compact does not come by default. It comes, rather, from our conviction that the settlement has been negotiated in good faith, is fair and practical and will serve well the interests of all Montanans.

Sen. Dick Barrett, Missoula
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, Kalispell

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Cliven Bundy School of Land Management

When Cliven Bundy and his ragtag posse of supporters staged that showdown with the Federal government last April, most Americans just didn’t get it. I’m talking here about all those folks out there in Boston or Akron or Tallahassee or Petaluma or wherever who regularly put quarters in parking meters or pay bridge tolls or send tuition checks off to the state university, apparently in the belief that when they get something of value they should expect to pay for it.

This point appears to have been lost on all the Sage Brush Rebels, County Movement Enthusiasts, Shovel Brigadiers, Tea Partiers, and Federal Land Seizers who grabbed their guns and rushed off to Nevada to defend Bundy, who for years had grazed his cattle on Federal land and refused to pay for it. In other words, although he dreamed up some cockamamie legal theory about how the land didn’t really belong to the Federal government, Bundy was a deadbeat pure and simple. But that just didn’t seem to bother the folks who rallied around him, ready to shoot it out with the Federales. It was only when Bundy turned out to be a racist as well as a deadbeat that they started to back away.

Now at first blush it might seem a little strange that Bundy’s pals were willing to overlook the fact that he was stiffing the Federal government. After all, these are the people who never tire of telling us what a bang up job they would do managing public lands, but now in the next breath are saying they’re willing to ignore the receivables. How does that work?

On the other hand, of course, these are also the people who have been trying for years to get their hands on public lands and resources with the fewest restrictions and at the lowest prices possible. And if that’s their aim, they’ve gotta love Bundy, who’s the poster child for exploiting Federal land at rock bottom prices. In his case, zero.

So there’s the dilemma: how do people (including a slew of state legislators) who want to take over Federal land get to claim, on the one hand, that they can do a much better job managing it than the Federal government does, and then on the other hand seem ready to rent, sell or lease it at fire sale prices?

The answer, of course, revolves around money and jobs. The takeover artists claim that they want public land management to be “economically productive,” by which they mean that public lands should produce a flow of cash revenue and be exploited in a way that provides jobs and stimulates local economies.

Now nobody’s going to argue that more revenue and more jobs are a bad thing, but using public lands to generate them does not necessarily constitute sound land management. Economically productive management puts land to its highest and best use – the one that creates the greatest net benefits – and that’s not always, or even usually, the use that creates the most jobs or generates the highest cash flow.

That may seem to defy common sense when it comes to what government should do with its resources – surely job creation is a worthy public goal – but think about it another way.  Public land managers could no doubt put an awful lot of people to work if they made access to land and the resources on it really cheap. But whether or not all that work made the land productive would depend on the economic value of what the workers were producing. And if people are only willing to work on the land if they can get access for next to nothing, it’s a safe bet that their use of the land is not going to produce much. It might be tempting to think that at least use of the land has produced a lot of jobs, but as I’ve pointed out before, jobs are not what’s produced, but the cost of production, and efficient management means keeping those costs as low as possible.

When it comes to the demand that they generate revenue, public land managers face another dilemma, because public lands can produce public services for which there is no market but that are nevertheless economically valuable. Think watershed protection or conservation of wildlife habitat: these services have economic value – in fact, a lot of economic value - precisely because they confer material benefits on the public,  just like private services like medical care or a Paul McCartney concert. The only difference is that nobody has to pay in order to get them. Nevertheless, the false notion that commercial values are economic (because they have a dollar sign attached to them) and environmental values are uneconomic (because there is no dollar sign) is remarkably durable.

Opponents of taking over Federal lands – Jon Tester, for example – worry out loud about how takeover would ultimately result in the public lands being “sold to the highest bidder.” I’m with the opponents, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that in the name of job creation and revenue generation, access to public land would be sold at rock bottom prices, and the land would end up wasting away in high cost, low valued uses.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Profound Irresponsibility

If he didn’t know it already, Steve Daines has obviously learned since going to Washington that “all politics are local,” and that he should keep his gaze firmly fixed on what’s happening inside Montana’s borders. But really, just how myopic can the guy get?

Danes recently announced that he has introduced something called the “Coal Jobs and Affordable Energy Protection Act,” which would prohibit the EPA’s newly proposed carbon emission regulations from taking effect unless various Federal agencies could certify that the regulations would not result in any loss of jobs or gross domestic product, would not raise electricity rates and would not affect the reliability of electricity delivery.

Now all that may sound sensible and prudent (certainly the Congressman wants you to think so), but understand what it really means: Daines apparently believes that there is no cost, of any kind and however small, that it is worth incurring to secure the benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. None. Zip. Zero.

It is hard to imagine how a politician who never tires of telling us about his background as a successful businessman can take such a short sighted position. What halfway competent businessman would pass up the opportunity to make a modest investment today that will protect his company from catastrophic damages in the future? What businessman worth his salt simply assumes that there is no insurance policy worth paying for?

And it is hard to imagine how a man who claims he cares about families is willing to be so utterly cavalier about the state of the world we are going to hand over to our children and grandchildren. How can a politician who agonizes endlessly about the Federal debt we will leave to our kids believe that we should not inconvenience ourselves one iota to protect the environment we will be leaving them at the same time?

The fact is that for Daines, who apparently can’t see beyond the end of his nose, the EPA regulations are there to wage a “war on coal,” not to arrest, in any minimal way they can, the pace of climate change. In a constituent email Daines quotes Michael Grunwald, writing in Time, to the effect that the EPA regulations “take the war on coal to the next level.” But Daines ignores the rest of Grunwald’s piece, which makes it clear that “In the 21st. century, any national leader that takes environmental protection and the fate of the planet seriously will need to launch a war on coal.” Grunwald’s rhetoric is a little over the top, but I take his point, which Daines should have taken as well: arresting climate change will require us to substantially reduce our dependence on coal and we need to be prepared to make the transition to other energy sources. There’s no future in throwing ourselves on the ground kicking and screaming and shouting “never!”

Of course it could be that Daines, with his eyes fixed firmly on the November elections, doesn’t really take his own bill seriously. Maybe it’s just a sop to throw to the folks back home, to try to convince us he cares. Or maybe Daines is just a climate change denier. We know, after all, that his grasp on science is a little tenuous.

Either way, Daines owes us an explanation for his profound irresponsibility and short sightedness in responding to the threat of climate change. And if he can’t do any better than he’s done so far, we’d better remember that in November.