Statement of Hon. Max Baucus, U.S. Senator from the State of Montana

Good morning, everybody. I first apologize for having the hearing on a Sunday. On the other hand, maybe we're blessed, because it's raining; which means the turnout is probably a little bit greater than it otherwise might be, which means we have the opportunity to have an even more engaging discussion on what the solution should be of our Canyon Ferry project.

I appreciate your taking the time. This is a hearing on a bill that I've introduced, cosponsored by Senator Burns, in the Senate, S. 1913, of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. I apologize on behalf of Conrad and Rick that they're unable to be here today. I know they wanted to. Their schedules are different, so they just can't be here today.

We, however, have a court reporter/stenographer. Cheryl Romsa is very ably taking a record of the entire hearing. So this is a public hearing. It's an official hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Everything will be on the record. And I'll report personally back to Conrad and to Rick about what I've picked up at the hearing here today, and I know each of you will, too, in the ways that you feel most appropriate. And of course, they'll have access to the record.

Peggy Trenk, who works for Congressman Hill, is here today. And when I finish my brief introductory remarks, Peggy will also give a statement on behalf of Congressman Rick Hill.

The first witnesses, who we're very honored to have with us here today and who are very involved in the issue, are Bob Robinson, of the Canyon Ferry Recreation Association. He's front and center here. And next to him, Mike Vashro, with the Prickly Pear Sportsmen's Association. He's seated at my left and basically your right. And also Bill Orsello, with the Montana Wildlife Federation, and he is at my right and your left. Again, when they've finished and we've finished having our discussion, each of you who wishes to speak can line up there at the microphone and say what's on your mind.

I introduced this bill because I believe it will benefit Montanans for generations to come; not just those of you who are here and your immediate families, but also for our future generations. Because I think, at least I hope, this bill presents a common sense solution to a number of ongoing conflicts in our state.

As we know, our public is finding it more difficult to access public lands. Private lands that the public once were allowed to are now often posted as no trespassing. And while this problem occurs throughout our state, it is also occurring in some degree around here in Helena and in nearby areas.

And with recreation, hunting and fishing become ever more a part of our state and local economies. And like I say, it's access for individuals, but it's also -- public access will help restore one of the legs of our, of our economy. It's critical, therefore, that we maintain adequate access to our public lands in areas such as the Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

In addition to the problems caused by access, growth in our state has eliminated important fish and wildlife habitat. Some areas that were once vibrant with fisheries or elk herds, we have seen it being negatively affected by development and by subdivisions. Once again, given the importance of hunting and fishing to our state and local economies, and given the crucial importance of our hunting and fishing heritage, it's important that we make the investments today to ensure that our children and our grandchildren can experience the great hunting and fishing opportunities that we presently enjoy.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1998 is designed to address these two problems, by improving access to public lands and by conserving important fish and wildlife habitat. The Act does this by creating two trusts to help acquire access to public lands and to protect our state's hunting and fishing.

The first trust is a local fund, called the Canyon Ferry-Missouri River Trust. As the name suggests, this trust would be used to improve public access to Canyon Ferry Reservoir and upstream along the Missouri River and to conserve fish and wildlife in these areas. As more and more people use these areas for hunting, fishing, and recreation, it's important that we have the tools necessary to provide sufficient public access to help conserve our fish and wildlife resources.

The second trust is a statewide fund, called the Montana Hunter and Fisherman Access Fund. Like the local trust, this fund would also be used to improve access to public lands and to conserve fish and wildlife. But unlike the Canyon Ferry-Missouri River Trust, this fund can be used throughout Montana. So it's not just local, the second trust, but rather, it's for statewide purposes.

And what, you ask, does this have to do with the cabin sites at the Canyon Ferry Reservoir? The cabin sites are the mechanism by which this bill will fund or pay for these trusts. In Montana, we have a long tradition of exchanging public lands with other lands that support our public values. As one example of this, the Congressional Delegation and I have been working for the past year on the Gallatin II land exchange, near Bozeman. That's an exchange that trades Forest Service lands for critical wildlife.

S. 1913 is a land exchange process known as a land/trust exchange. And this is a process whereby public lands are used to establish a land trust that in turn is used to acquire additional lands for public use. In this case, the cabin sites at Canyon Ferry are used to establish trusts to acquire other lands that improve public access and conserve fish and wildlife at Canyon Ferry Reservoir and throughout our state.

Currently, there are 265 cabin sites at Canyon Ferry Reservoir. These sites are fully developed, with cabins, yards, carports, fences, driveways. And although these cabins have provided benefits to the families that have leased these sites from the Federal Government over the last 40 years, the cabin sites are not otherwise used by the public at large.

The lease arrangements between the cabin owners and the Bureau of Rec have been a constant source of frustration, as I'm sure all the cabin owners here today can attest, basically over how high the lease payments should be and working with the Bureau and the sort of cursory appraisal the Bureau undertook. My understanding is, they just drove down the lake one day, and on the basis of that one little cruise down the lake, they arrived at the high appraisal; whereas, all of you owners have secured another appraisal, which I understood took a couple of weeks and is very thorough and comes out with a much more accurate number.

As a lot of you know, two -- And as this has been an ongoing problem, two years ago, I brought out Mr. Dan Beard. Dan Beard, as you know, was then the Commissioner of Reclamation. I brought him to Canyon Ferry in an effort to help resolve this. And I know that some of you attended that meeting with Commissioner Beard. And while relations with the Bureau have improved since that time, I think there's still many questions as to whether the Bureau should be playing landlord for these 265 cabin sites.

Frankly, I don't think the current arrangement works. It doesn't work for the lessees, the current cabin site lessees, and I don't think it works for the public. And I think, therefore, that we should to try to find a solution that solves that.

So if we can find a proposal that consists of the following objectives, then I think it's a proposal worth pursuing and trying to adopt: The first one, it eliminates the current conflict between the cabin owners and the Federal Government; second, maintain existing public access to the reservoir and along the shoreline near the cabin sites; next, actually improve access to public lands, both at the reservoir and around the state; and finally, enhance hunting and fishing. And if we can do that, I think we'll come up with something that's going to work.

And that's what today's hearing is about, taking a look at the bill that I've introduced, along with Senator Burns. I'm asking for you to comment on that bill, to examine it; and in addition to the bill, to any concerns that you might have, so we can incorporate them into the legislation.

The bottom line is that I believe that we have a good opportunity to do a lot of good for our state. And I think basically it's because all of you are here and your ideas and advice are going to really help form and shape and mold this bill into a good solution for Montana.