We’re less than a week away from the start of the 66th Montana Legislature. Already, a whole slew of bill titles and drafts are circulating. In preparation, we’ve spent the past several weeks sifting through bill drafts and talking with colleagues and legislators about potential pieces of legislation. Not to mention the work that takes place in the interim session—lots of the issues we’ll lobby on in Helena are topics we’ve been following closely for the past several months. While we expect to see a much higher volume of bills than the list below here’s a quick update on a few topics we’ve been keeping tabs on throughout the interim.
Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS)
The 2017 Legislature responded to these risks by passing legislation that devised plans, programs, and funding to contain and prevent the spread of the two primary aquatic invasive species: zebra mussels and quagga mussels. The established AIS program has proven to be successful; of the over 80,000 boat inspections the program performed in 2018, 14 mussel-fouled boats were intercepted. Thus far, no mussels have been detected in sampled water bodies. However, the funding mechanism for the AIS program sunsets in 2019. During the interim, the Environmental Quality Council drafted a funding proposal for consideration in the 2019 Legislature.
During the 2017 Legislative Session, securing funding for this program was a last minute scramble. With the state short on cash, the hydroelectric community stepped up to the plate as a temporary source of funding. The Environmental Quality Council honored congressional leadership’s promise to remove hydro from the funding equation in the next session and plans to introduce a bill that funds the program with an angler prevention pass, fees collected on non-motorized and motorized watercraft, a waterfowl stamp, and use of general fund dollars. MFBF policy supports this proposal as it provides a more permanent source of funding for the program.
Fire Preparedness Funds
The Environmental Quality Council (EQC) considered multiple proposals during the interim that would expand Montana’s fire preparedness fee (which is currently a voluntary assessment western landowners have placed upon themselves) to all landowners across the state. With only a two-point majority, the Council voted to introduce legislation, HB 37, which places a base fee per parcel on all land in Montana, excluding cities, while an additional fee is applied if the parcel contains forested land or a dwelling. If passed, HB 37 will amass to one-third of the wildland fire protection preparedness appropriation or $6 million, whichever is less.
These funds would be used strictly for fire-preparedness purposes, not suppression efforts. This includes firefighter training, equipment purchases and maintenance, and fire detection and prevention. $1 million of the collected fees would be allocated towards an aviation equipment replacement account, and any unspent or unobligated funds from the prior fiscal year would be transferred to that account on September 1 of each year.
While the intent of this bill is to make the current fire funding system more equitable, assessing a fee by acreage disproportionately discriminates against eastern Montana landowners who have a lower likelihood of fire on their land it fails to accomplish that goal and displays several other inequities in the process. Montana Farm Bureau members passed policy that strongly opposes a statewide mandatory fire-preparedness assessment fee.
MFBF has been committed to the goal of Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program since its inception. The program seeks to protect sage-grouse habitat through compensatory mitigation, in which private landowners are compensated for restoration, enhancement, and preservation projects to sage-grouse habitat. Such projects create credits that developers can then purchase to offset the damages their projects cause to sage-grouse habitat. It’s important to note that only projects that require a permit from a state agency have to adhere to the stipulations of the Program.
MFBF has been actively working with the Program to perfect the two documents that direct how the program is administered – the Habitat Quantification Tool (HQT) and the Montana Mitigation System Policy Guidance Document. After countless comment periods, stakeholder workshops, and a period of peer review, the Montana Sage-Grouse Oversight Team (MSGOT) finalized program details and voted to place both documents into rule at their meeting on December 20th.
MFBF is encouraged by the content included in both documents. We were concerned that the compensatory burden of mitigation may hinder development of telecommunications in our rural communities. The Program specifically responded to our comments by instituting alternative mitigation options (matching funds and a waiver) for such critical projects. We’re still watching closely to ensure such alternatives are actually employed. Developers cannot be so financially burdened by this program they will not invest in our rural communities.
Nevertheless, with the bird’s status on the line in 2020, we need a Sage-Grouse Program in Montana. The Program’s success is essential to Montana’s ability to manage our own lands were the greater sage-grouse to become listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We hope establishment of Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program will provide evidence to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that the greater sage-grouse should remain unlisted under the ESA in 2020.