If GOP Senate hopeful Tim Sheehy wanted to know how advocating for transferring control of federal lands to states goes over in a place like Montana, all he had to do was look at the last Republican to take a run at Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) found out during his 2018 bid for Senate that it is an appallingly unpopular position.
Rosendale embraced federal land transfer as a candidate for the House in 2014, going as far as to call for a Montana takeover of all Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands within Montana’s borders. At a Republican debate that year, he dismissed federal lands as unconstitutional and said, “I believe that the citizens of Montana should have control and management of those areas, instead of the federal government.”
But by the time Rosendale ran for Senate four years later, he’d clearly heard an earful from his constituents. In a Billings Gazette op-ed in April 2018, he wrote, “I’ve listened to the people of Montana and they mean business about protecting our public lands, opposing a federal lands transfer.” He added a section to his campaign website titled “Protect Our Public Lands,” in which he declared his belief that “our public lands must always stay in public hands.” And during a candidate debate, Rosendale acknowledged that “there was a time when I thought they could be better managed by the state,” but said he “talked to people all over the state and they’ve made it exceedingly clear that they do not want those lands transferred. And I not only understand that; I agree with that.”
Rosendale, who is considering a second Senate campaign against Tester, has since sponsored anti-public-lands legislation.
Montana is 35% federally owned. Poll after poll shows that voters in Western states, including Montana, overwhelmingly oppose transferring control or selling off federal lands.
None of this has kept Sheehy, a decorated military veteran and millionaire businessman, from making the same mistake as Rosendale.
“Local control has to be returned,” Sheehy told the Working Ranch Radio Show earlier this month. “Whether that means, you know, some of these public lands get turned over to state agencies, or even counties, or whether those decisions are made by a local landlord instead of by, you know, federal fiat a few thousand miles away. Local control will almost always produce better results than a federal mandate from bureaucrats who are unaccountable to the people that are ultimately subject to these regulations.”
While federal agencies are headquartered in Washington, D.C., most land management decisions are made by local field offices.
When HuffPost contacted Sheehy’s campaign about the radio interview, spokesperson Katie Martin tried to walk back what sounded like a full embrace of federal land transfer.
“Tim believes Montanans know best how to manage our land, not the Washington bureaucrats,” the spokesperson said via email. “Tim supports more local control and less federal mandates. Tim opposes a federal transfer of our public lands. Tim opposes the sale of our public lands. Tim supports better management and more local control of our public lands.”
When asked how federal lands being “turned over” to states — Sheehy’s words — differs from “transferring” them, Sheehy’s campaign said, “Calling for better management and more local control is not the same as “transferring them.”
Sheehy’s attempt to walk the line here mirrors a yearslong shift within the pro-transfer movement. As HuffPost previously reported, conservatives have largely been forced to abandon brazen calls for outright transfer and sale ― at least publicly — instead embracing savvier tactics aimed at achieving many of the same industry-friendly goals that would come with stripping lands from federal control. That has included supporting federal-state agreements that would give states a greater role in public land management and pushing permitting reform legislation aimed at giving states the authority to manage oil, gas and other energy development across the federal estate ― a de facto transfer of control that would establish federal lands in name only.
In that same radio interview, Sheehy condemned federal agencies, specifically the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture, accusing them of being “hijacked, in many cases, by bureaucrats who are carrying out a political agenda.” And he railed against efforts to put additional federal lands into conservation. In May, the BLM unveiled a draft rule that would place conservation “on equal footing” with energy development and other traditional uses, including by granting the agency the authority to issue “conservation leases” to promote land protection and ecosystem restoration. Cattle ranchers have pushed back against the proposal, saying it would “upend” land management in the West.
“Instead of supporting the producers that they’re supposed to be enabling, they are putting constrictions in place that could potentially put them out of business,” Sheehy said. “So taking some of these leases, you know, out of agricultural production and moving them into conservation is deeply concerning. … We’re seeing battles take place all over the country, from Nevada to Washington to Montana, about what that really means.”
The most famous battle over land rights in Nevada was the 2014 armed standoff that notorious rancher Cliven Bundy led in Bunkerville over fees he refused to pay for grazing cattle on federal lands. It is not clear if Sheehy was referring to that incident. His campaign did not address several of HuffPost’s specific questions.
The Bundy family has long advocated for a state takeover of federal lands.
Sheehy himself is a fledgling rancher. In 2020, he and his friend, former Navy SEAL Greg Putnam, started the Little Belt Cattle Company in Martinsdale, Montana. Today, the company actively ranches approximately 30,000 private and leased acres and owns 2,000 cattle.
Sheehy is digging in on a position he outlined early in his bid to flip Tester’s seat. On his campaign website, Sheehy writes that he has “a unique perspective on what the federal government is failing to address when it comes to tackling wildfires—they need to let Montana start managing our federal lands.”
Federal acres belong to all Americans, not just residents of the state where they are located.
Western voters have made their views on pawning off public lands abundantly clear. Released in 2017, a poll by the Center for American Progress found that 64% of Donald Trump voters opposed privatizing or selling off public lands. A survey by Colorado College in 2016 found that 60% of voters in seven Western states, including 59% of Montanans, opposed selling off significant federal land holdings. And a 2016 poll by Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities found that 63% of Montana voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported selling public lands to reduce the budget deficit, compared with 20% who said they’d be more likely to support such a candidate.
Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, told HuffPost that the issue became “such a third rail that candidates across the West generally stopped going there” — and pollsters largely quit posing such direct questions.
“It’s incredibly consistent over the years and not even close,” he said of public opposition. “This is not like an issue that is on the margin for Montana voters. They are very clearly against transferring or selling off public lands.”
Weiss stressed that transferring control of federal lands to states would ultimately lead to their privatization.
“States and counties have to run balanced budgets, and we know the amount of money that the federal government spends just on firefighting alone on national public lands would bankrupt just about every Western state,” he said. “That’s not even getting into the other land management costs that go into managing large swaths of public land in keeping them public.”
“The inevitable outcome of any of these land transfer proposals, as much as folks try to frame them as, ‘Oh, this is just going to be a state issue,’ inevitably it leads to selling off and privatizing public lands because there is no way for states to handle the management costs,” he added. “Full stop.”
Both the Montana Republican Party and national Republican Party platforms support transferring federal acres to the states.
Sheehy may simply be towing the party line — something he has gotten quite good at since launching his campaign in June. But he is likely to soon find out just how problematic his recent comments can be for someone seeking political office in Big Sky Country.