August 19, 2020
“Keep Public Lands in Public Hands” is a well-used slogan during this election season. Given that all candidates claim to support this notion, it should be concerning that Senator Steve Daines has just given away the 18,500-acre National Bison Range and 36,800 acres of state lands to the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
This public land gift along with 1.9 billion dollars (yes that is BILLION) is a payment to settle a long simmering water rights dispute with the CSKT. The tribal water rights claim, which covers the western two thirds of Montana, is based on an original treaty provision that guarantees the tribes fishing access to all of these waters in common with Montana citizens. Inexplicably, the Daines’ bill, titled Montana Water Rights Protection Act (S 3019), requires that the CSKT renounce their water rights claims yet allows them to retain “…activities affecting the quality of water…”
In other words, in return for 55,300 acres of public lands and $1.9 billion, the CSKT gives up nothing, because they still retain the right to intervein as to water quality. This would include flow, temperature, contamination, and sediment levels on all of the streams on which they have supposedly relinquished their water rights. The CSKT report to their members that they are, in fact, only giving up less than 10% of their overall water rights claims.
Even more concerning is that this bill has been pushed through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee with no public notice or field hearings. The people who will be affected have not been given the democratic right to express their views. Those potentially harmed by the Daines’ Bill include: the citizens of Lake and Flathead Counties; the owners of the irrigated farms on the reservation; the lessees of the state lands to be transferred; the people who enjoy access to the National Bison Range; public lands hunters and fishermen; and water rights holders across most of the state.
One further issue that should worry cattle ranchers is that the bison that will be transferred along with the National Bison Range, will be classified as wildlife. This means that when this herd of bison is infected with brucellosis by the elk migrating north out of the Brucellosis Surveillance Area, the Montana Department of Livestock will have no authority to require control of the infection.
Both of our Senators are implicated in this issue. Senator Jon Tester is proposing very similar legislation to settle water rights issues with the tribes on the Fort Belknap Reservation. His proposed bill (S.3113) will transfer 58,571 acres of state and federal lands to the tribes along with 700 million dollars. Just as in the Daines’ Bill, the tribes retain rights over water quality. Tester’s Bill has not yet been passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The press coverage that has circulated over the Montana Water Protection Act claims that this Act will prevent costly litigation and create 6000 jobs. Pure nonsense! Daines’ Bill guarantees that court challenges will go on from now until forever. Just about every interest group in the state will be harmed by a process that has systematically cut them out of the deliberations. Equitably resolving the water rights claims of our Native American citizens is important. Senate Bill 3019 is not the way to get it done.
Jim Baker, Past President
Montana Cattlemen’s Association
Hot Springs, Montana