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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Sen Tester Now Believes Threat To Privatize Public Lands is 'Real'

Sen. Jon Tester at a meeting of the Missoula Kiwanis club, Jan 02, 2018.
Eric Whitney
Sen. Jon Tester at a meeting of the Missoula Kiwanis club, Jan 02, 2018.

At an appearance in Missoula Tuesday, Senator Jon Tester said he’s recently changed his mind about a contentious political issue in Montana.
"There was a point in time where I didn’t think this was real, that there wasn’t a concerted effort to try to push the public lands to the state, which, anybody who knows anything about the state budget would mean that they’d have to end up selling them. But I think it is real," Tester says, "and if we take our eye off the ball things could happen that could make this state into New Jersey. Not that New Jersey is a bad place, but it ain’t Montana."

Tester was answering a question about the issue at a meeting of the Missoula Kiwanis club. Afterwards, I asked him what changed his mind.

"Because the conversation hasn’t gone away, it continues to resurface in different forms in Washington, DC, and you continue to be concerned that if these folks are able to either de-fund a lot of these agencies so they can’t do the work, to make sure it’s there, or make it so people don’t have access to it, and people get upset and say, ‘enough of this.’ What I’m saying to you is, I think you can see an agenda that’s starting to form back there, and the end results of that would be dissatisfaction with public lands, and so now the government’s going to get rid of them.

Eric Whitney: You talk about ‘these folks’ that have that agenda to privatize public lands. Does that include specific people or groups in Montana? Or members of Montana’s congressional delegation?

"Well, I don’t think at this point in time, I haven’t seen anything from our delegation that they’re a part of it at all," Tester says. "There are folks within the state, of course that want to do it and they’ve been well documented. But I think in the end if we’re aware of it, and don’t take it lightly it has a lot better chances of failure."

Senator Tester said he’s not aware of any specific bills to privatize public lands, and that his primary concern is underfunding federal land management agencies to the point that the public wants to remove them from managing public lands.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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