Politicians Show Their Support for Public Land—on a Private Ranch

Public land in Montana
Public land in Montana Chris Noble / Getty Images

Matt Rosendale has a public lands problem. The Republican nominee to replace incumbent Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat with a strong conservation record, was once an enthusiastic advocate for the sale or transfer of federal public lands to the states.

“There is no call in the Constitution for the federal government to own national forests or BLM land,” Rosendale said during the 2014 Republican congressional primary, when he was running against current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “I have long been on the record as an advocate for the transfer of federal public lands to the state.”

 

 

Public lands, however, have widespread support across the West—81 percent of voters in five western states say public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are important in deciding which candidate to vote for, according to a recent poll by the Center for Western Priorities—and that’s especially true here in Montana. There are over 27 million acres of federal public land in Montana—close to 30 percent of the state’s landmass—and Montanans are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of land transfer, the Missoulian reports.

So now that Rosendale is running for Senate in his adopted Big Sky state, his earlier land transfer enthusiasm has plagued him, and he’s been assuring skeptical Montanans that he has “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 isn’t the only politician who has recanted over the issue of publics lands, and he’s not the only one to seemingly continue his anti-public land ways, at least when it comes to specific policies, after making amends. Senator Steve Daines, Montana’s sitting Republican senator, who campaigned in 2014 as an opponent of land transfer, felt the sting of a swift rebuke from the folks back home when he voted in 2015 to establish a fund to handle revenues from public land sales, transfers, or exchanges, according to the Billings Gazette. The editorial board of the Billings Gazette, which had previously endorsed Daines, made their sense of betrayal clear: “We supported him in part because of his ability to break with his own party on this very important issue to Montana. But, the pull of Washington, D.C., politics must be too much for his political constitution to withstand.”

Daines has rarely missed an opportunity to reiterate his opposition to land transfer in the years since. And then there’s Republican Greg Gianforte, Montana’s lone congressional representative, who faced harsh criticism during his failed 2016 gubernatorial run over a lawsuit he filed against Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to cancel an easement across part of his Bozeman property that provides public access to the East Gallatin River, the Billings Gazette reports. Even though Gianforte insisted the suit was only aimed at preventing trespassers, the public saw it differently, branding him as a millionaire intent on hoarding a choice stretch of trout water for himself. Gianforte’s recent support for a bill to protect Montana’s East Rosebud Creek through a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation—which passed this year with the support of Senator Daines and Senator Tester—has helped wash the stain of the East Gallatin affair from his record. Both Gianforte and Daines also joined Tester this year in supporting the withdrawal of 30,000 acres of Forest Service land north of Yellowstone National Park from eligibility for future mineral leases.

These laudable public lands actions are not entirely the result of negative reinforcement, either—and that’s a good thing. Both within and beyond Montana, politicians from both parties have earned praise for their commitment to public lands. Along with the Montana delegation, they include Congressman Mike Simpson and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, both Republicans, who have worked in recent years to designate new wilderness; senators Martin Heinrich and Stuart Udall of New Mexico, both Democrats; Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, a Republican; Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat; and Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who has been a driving force in reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That these politicians can work across the aisle to promote pro-public lands policies shows the considerable sway that public lands still have on the national political conversation, despite repeated attacks.

As for Rosendale, he’s still in damage control mode, and as part of that process he tweeted photos on October 20, the opening day of rifle season for deer and elk, with the caption “Beautiful day enjoying our public lands and hunting with @SteveDaines.” In one of the photos, Rosendale stands beside Senator Daines, who grew up in Bozeman. In the other, Rosendale stands alone, dressed in a camo ball cap, a half-zip sweater, camo gloves and outerwear, and an orange vest, a rifle slung over his shoulder. In the expanse behind him, a timbered slope descends from right to left, an ATV track cutting across a meadow visible behind his right arm. The snowy 10,030’ peak of Steamboat Mountain is visible on the horizon at head level. At a Rosendale campaign event with Senator Lindsey Graham, Daines told the story of the hunt. “It was just terrific, there was no staff with us, just Matt and me, just two Montana guys out with rifles on their shoulders, orange vests on of course, out taking a look for deer and elk that day.” A man piped up from the audience to ask if they got anything. “We didn’t, it was a little warm,” Daines said. “And we were hunting public lands, right? That’s what we were doing that day. If we woulda had permission to shoot on private land, we’d have had an elk . . . That’s the honest truth! Matt stepped outta the truck, he saw a bull, but it was on private land. We couldn’t shoot that bull. We were looking for deer and elk on public land that day.”

The problem was, they weren’t on public land in the photos—at least Rosendale wasn’t in the photo of himself alone, which meant that Daines, who may have taken that photo, wasn’t either. They were on private land, and not just any private land.

The high grassy knoll they posed on was on property belonging to Robert E. Smith III, co-founder of Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-wing media titan that has come under scrutiny for multi-billion dollar mergers (per Wired) and for mandating pro-Trump content in its news coverage, The New Yorker reports. In some cases, Sinclair even forced its anchors to read from scripts prepared by the corporate office.

There is no clear financial tie between Daines or Rosendale and Smith, but members of the Smith family have donated a total of $12,800 to fellow Republican Greg Gianforte since early 2017, according to FEC records. It didn’t take long for Montana hunters to call Daines and Rosendale on their apparent fraud. Fiercely protective of their honey holes, many Montana hunters are careful not to post photos of their favorite spots that include dead-giveaways like identifiable mountain peaks, and the fallout over Rosendale’s hunting photos shows why. Locals easily recognized Steamboat Mountain, then used Google Earth and the Montana cadastral to figure out that Daines and Rosendale were almost certainly standing on the Point of Rocks Ranch, which belongs to Smith. That Daines and Rosendale apparently chose to call in a favor from a millionaire private landowner in order to stage a public lands photo op struck the local hunting community as beyond peculiar. You can drive thirty minutes in almost any direction from Bozeman and find yourself standing on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service—why drive over an hour to stand on private ground?

I’m an avid public land hunter, and I live in Livingston, about a half-hour north of the Point of Rocks Ranch. A few days after a friend alerted me to Rosendale’s October 20 tweet, I decided to hike up into the public land sections adjacent to where Daines and Rosendale took their photos to see if I could recreate the perspective from public land. At the trailhead, my friend Alexis Bonogofsky and I threw on our packs and stepped off on a public trail that winds through checkerboarded sections of Forest Service and Point of Rocks Ranch land up to a 7,600’ ridge. There were flurries in the air and there was a layer of fresh snow on the ground. It was cold, but by the time we finished the roughly two-mile hike to the ridge, nearly 800’ higher than where we started, both of us were down to our base layers, breathing heavily and sweating. This was the first indication that something was amiss with the politicians’ photos. Daines had said “It was pretty warm” on opening day, and yet they had somehow managed to gain the same ridge without breaking a sweat, and while wearing heavy layers. However they got up there, it seemed unlikely they had walked. Alexis and I scoured every potential spot that seemed like it might provide the view seen in the photos, but we couldn’t make it work. We hiked back down, certain that they had to have been standing on a flat clearing above a band of trees just a few steps off a four-wheeler track on Point of Rocks property, exactly where the cyber sleuths had placed Rosendale in his solo photo.

The next day, I reached out to Daines’ communication staffers, whom I’ve worked with multiple times, to ask for an explanation. Despite emailing two more times and calling a Daines staffer directly, I have yet to receive an explanation. On Friday, I drove almost six hours to Whitefish, in northwest Montana, where Rosendale was scheduled to campaign alongside Utah Senator Mike Lee, an ardent proponent of land transfer. I planned to ask Rosendale about the photos directly, but I never got the chance—he and Lee fled the room without taking questions after speaking for a combined total of eight minutes. Neither of them mentioned public lands once. I followed them on to Polson, where they gave another sub-ten-minute pep talk to group of elderly admirers at the office of the Lake County Republicans. After the speeches, while Rosendale shook hands and chatted with supporters, I waited patiently for a chance to ask my question: where exactly was he standing in the photo, and how did he get there? He would not even look at me and hurried away in a waiting car.

For voters concerned about public land, there are much bigger concerns than Rosendale’s photo stunt. In his current position as State Auditor, Rosendale has had ample opportunity to show his support for increasing public access and public recreation opportunities—but he has done the opposite. As one of five members on the Board of Land Commissioners, he has gone out of his way to block and delay land acquisitions and purchases of conservation easements. Last year, he cast a decisive vote against the purchase of an easement on the Keogh Ranch between Bozeman and Butte that would block future residential development and provide critical security for elk during their annual migration, according to the Montana Standard. This year, he voted against the Horse Creek easement, which provides access to 15,000 acres of prime mule deer country in the eastern Montana badlands. Rosendale said he was turned off by the $6.1 million dollar price tag, Independent Record reports—to be paid by a mix of federal dollars and hunting and fishing license revenues through a project called Habitat Montana, and therefore revenue-neutral for the state—but conservation advocates familiar with the issue say Rosendale’s opposition was purely ideological.

Governor Bullock, who served previously as Montana’s attorney general and is the only Democrat on the land board, went ahead and purchased the easement without the board’s approval, according to Independent Record, claiming land board consideration for purchasing easements had always been a courtesy rather than a legal requirement. “They were de facto trying to kill Habitat Montana through trying to kill the Horse Creek easement,” said a source close to the negotiations who asked not to be named. “It was the boldest thing I’ve seen Bullock do as governor.”

Along with Rosendale’s land board behavior, his choice to close out his campaign surrounded by a cast of virulently anti-public land figures stands in stark contrast to his claims of rehabilitation. Mike Lee, who stumped with Rosendale in northwest Montana last week, is the polished heir apparent of the Sagebrush Rebellion—the violent anti-public lands movement that simmered and occasionally raged throughout the West at various points from the 1970s to the 1990s, and has flared again most recently with the rise of the Bundy clan. Along with his repeated attempts to orchestrate the sale of public lands, Lee pushed legislation this year to destroy the Antiquities Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, signed into law, with the intent of defending public land from the rapaciousness of industry, Deseret News reports. Even after Trump’s precedent-setting reductions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante Monuments in Utah earlier this year—which came at the urging of members of the Utah delegation, including Mike Lee, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Congressman Rob Bishop—the Antiquities Act remains the most powerful landscape-scale preservation tool in a president’s quiver. Lee’s bill would force presidents to secure approval from governors, county commissioners, and Congress in order to designate or expand national monuments, which would render the Antiquities Act effectively void.

In addition to Lee, Rosendale toured Montana for several days in October alongside Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, also an unrepentant land transfer advocate. “I’d either sell or turn over all the land management to the states,” Paul told a Nevada audience that included scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy in 2015. Bundy was already notorious at the time for racking up over $1,000,000 in unpaid public land grazing fees and fines and for massing an armed militia against Bureau of Land Management agents, but that didn’t stop Paul from meeting privately with Bundy and his family that night, an encounter Paul’s staff later sought to deny. Rounding out the bunch, Rosendale has been boasting about an endorsement from Texas Senator Ted Cruz. (Cruz and Rosendale share the same political consulting firm, Axiom Strategies, which Rosendale has paid over $205,000.) Like Rand Paul, Cruz is a casual Bundy supporter who attacked Trump during the 2016 presidential primary over his tepid opposition to land transfer. “I believe we should transfer as much federal land as possible back to the states and ideally back to the people,” Cruz said.

In Missoula, the final stop on the Rosendale-Lee tour, I waited outside in the cold in hopes that Rosendale’s communications director, Shane Scanlon, would muster the courtesy to speak to me. He poked his head out the door twice, but when I called out to him he pretended not to hear me and closed the door. The three events were sparsely attended. In Missoula, I counted about 25 people through the windows of the City Life Community Center. It was the youngest crowd of the three events by far, but crowd is hardly the right word. At least five of the people in the room were paid campaign staff and volunteers.

On the way home from Missoula, I learned from a source that the manager of Point of Rocks Ranch is a man named Matt Lumley, a trapper and wolf hunter who serves on the board of the Montana Trappers Association. “He is probably the best wolf hunter in MT,” my source texted. Lumley has been accused of harassment by hunters who claim he has tried to drive them away from public land—part of what they see as a broader effort to effectively privatize wildlife, which are publicly owned, for the benefit of wealthy out-of-state landowners. Lumley also happens to hold a paid position with the Utah-based anti-predator organization Big Game Forever, which makes a hell of a lot of sense. BGF has been supportive of Daines’ and Gianforte’s efforts to legislatively strip protections from about a half million acres of wilderness study areas in Montana, per High Country News. A non-profit based in Bountiful, Utah, BGF is a splinter group of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, established by Republican operative Don Peay, who now sits on Interior Secretary Zinke’s Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council. BGF has been embroiled in controversy for years over its cozy relationship with Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature, which has appropriated millions to fund the organization’s anti-wildlife lobbying efforts, without requiring any reporting on how the funds are spent, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Lumley serves as BGF’s Montana-Wyoming regional director, one of four positions that merit a profile on the group’s official website. His wife, Nicole, also has ties to Republican politics. She appears in a pro-Second Amendment ad endorsing Greg Gianforte that’s currently running on Montana television stations. It took me awhile to find Lumley’s number, but I was finally able to reach him on Sunday. Did he know anything about Daines and Rosendale hunting on the Point of Rocks Ranch, I asked? Indeed, he did.

Lumley confirmed that he let Daines and Rosendale use the ATV trail across Point of Rocks property that goes up to the ridge where they snapped the photos, and that he later gave them a tour of the ranch during which they “saw a lot of elk.” However, he insisted Rosendale and Daines did not have permission to hunt on the ranch, only to use the ATV trail to get to public land. “I can assure you they were hunting public lands,” he said. Daines and Rosendale were hunting alone, just the two of them, Lumley said. Then who took the photos? I asked. “I imagine they had a timer on their phone and took a selfie,” Lumley said, which seems unlikely given that the full-body shots were taken from several yards away. I asked Lumley, who said he hunts almost every day, if he’s ever taken Daines or Rosendale hunting. He said he’s never hunted with Rosendale, but, he said, “Senator Daines has come down and rode with me a little bit.” (A highly credible source told me that Donald Trump, Jr., also hunted Point of Rocks Ranch within the last two weeks.) Lumley said he did not think Daines and Rosendale using the ATV trail was a big deal. Everyone who hikes up the Donahue Trail also uses Point of Rocks land because there are permanent easements across it, he said.

“But not everyone can use that ATV track to get to the top, right?” I asked. Lumley hesitated. “If I called and asked permission, would you let me use that ATV track to get to the top?”

“No,” Lumley said, “I’d have to say, no.”