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Sheehy, PERC and the future of public lands conservation in Montana

by By GEORGE OCHENSKI
| June 28, 2024 7:00 AM

A great recent article by Chris D’Angelo reports on the connection between Tim Sheehy, the Republican challenging Jon Tester for his senate seat, and PERC, the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center that promotes what it calls “free market environmentalism.”  

While Montanans might wonder about Sheehy’s background and policy positions given the shifting sands in his explanations, the fact that he was on the board of PERC is not in question — despite his failure to disclose that fact as required by Senate rules which his campaign says is an “omission” that’s being “amended.”   

For those who have long been in the conservation, environmental, and public lands policy arena, PERC is a very well-known entity. As noted on its IRS 990 non-profit reporting form, the center is “dedicated to advancing conservation through markets, incentives, property rights and partnerships” which “applies economic thinking to environmental problems.” 

But to put it somewhat more simply, PERC believes that private land ownership results in better conservation of those lands under the theory — and it is a disputable theory — that if you own the land and resources, you take better care of it due to its investment value.  This has long been their across the board approach to land, water, endangered species and resource extraction.

If one wanted to dispute that theory, it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to do, particularly in Montana where checking the list of Superfund sites left behind by private industries and owners bears indisputable evidence of the myth that private ownership means better conservation of those resources.

In fact, the theory falls on its face since, when “using economic thinking” the all-too-often result is to exploit the resources to maximize profit as quickly as possible.  And again, this example is applicable across a wide spectrum of resources.  In Montana, that can mean anything from degrading rangeland by putting more livestock on it than it can sustain to, as in Plum Creek’s sad history, leaving behind stumpfields filled with noxious weeds on their vast private — once public — land holdings. 

None of this is particularly a mystery, yet PERC has sucked down enormous amounts of funding from anti-conservation sources for more than four decades as it tries mightily to put lipstick on the pig of the all-too-obvious results of runaway private lands resource extraction.

Running one of the most high-stakes senate campaigns in the nation, however, produces a lot of tap-dancing around the truth in an effort to convince voters that you’re for whatever position will garner the most votes come Election Day. 

In that regard, both Sheehy and PERC are scuttling sideways in their positions.  Given the overwhelming support for “keeping public lands in public hands” in Montana, PERC now claims it “firmly believes that public lands should stay in public hands. We do not advocate for nor support privatization or divestiture.”  

Funny that, given its previous and very long-held position that private ownership of lands and waters is the key to conservation.  Likewise, Sheehy’s position, “that “public lands must stay in public hands” is completely the opposite from the one he held only a year ago, and parrots PERC not only in its verbiage, but in its realization of which way public sentiment and the electoral winds are blowing.

Since what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of public lands in the Big Sky State, it behooves us to demand specific policy positions in writing from all candidates for public office — including the race for Montana’s Senate seat.