Public lands advocates bring message of protection to Capitol

At a rally in the Montana Capitol Friday, hundreds of public lands advocates were encouraged to remember past leaders who developed the American ideal of public land – Roosevelt, Muir, Mansfield, Metcalf – and praised Montanans who now protect that ideal, including Tester, Bullock and Posewitz. (Kristi DuBois)

For the third legislative session in a row, the Montana Capitol’s rotunda rang with the chorus, “Keep public lands in public hands.”

On Friday, hundreds of Montanans converged on the Capitol to participate in a rally supporting public lands. Busloads of people from Missoula, Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte and Billings joined others from smaller towns who packed into and above the rotunda where six advocates readied their praises of public lands.

Emcee Mary Hollow of Prickly Pear Land Trust led the chant before Sen. Jon Tester took the mic and bellowed with the crowd. Then he taught the crowd a new chant: “L-W-C-F,” to encourage the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The fund uses money – up to $900 million a year, although it’s rarely funded to that level – from offshore oil royalties to buy and maintain public land and parks. The LCWF has provided money for large acreages of Montana’s public lands and parks over the years, including the Legacy forestlands in the Swan Valley. But the funding authorization ended in September and must be renewed.

“From a federal level, we were one vote, one vote away from getting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the best conservation tool we’ve got, from being permanently reauthorized,” Tester said, referring to Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. “We’re going to continue to work to reauthorize the LWCF when we go back.”

Next, Ryan Busse of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers asked the crowd to send up their “great rallying cry for the truest of all American ideals: public land.”

Busse acknowledged the foresight of past leaders who developed the American ideal of public land – Roosevelt, Muir, Mansfield, Metcalf – and praised Montanans who now protect that ideal, including Tester, Bullock and Posewitz.

Sen. Jon Tester made a surprise appearance at the Helena rally. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

He challenged those attending the rally to support the Habitat Montana program during the 2019 legislative session.

Habitat Montana is kind of the state equivalent to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, in that it’s a fund authorized by the Legislature for Fish, Wildlife & Parks to buy public land and conservation easements. Each session, Republican legislators propose bills that would hinder the use of Habitat Montana.

“Nowhere else on this globe do people own such a wide swath of natural assets; perhaps the most true living example of equal justice. This land is one of the few places where every man woman and child is equal when they set foot upon that land,” Busse said.

“If we want to maintain our economy and lifestyle then we must fund it,” he said. “Federal and state agencies have been starved and this must stop. The bottom line is we cannot turn our backs for a second. This is a big battle. We all know it is. People everywhere are watching. Governments and people in every state look to Montanans to lead on public lands.”

Representing a younger generation of advocates, Dropstone Outfitting co-owner Maggie Carr is one of 73,000 Montanans whose jobs depend on public land. Many earn their living as outfitters or guides, a job category that brings in hundreds of millions of tourist dollars to the state, ranking fourth in revenue totals behind fuel, food and lodging. In her case, Carr guides hikers into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and she wants to maintain her lifestyle.

But having grown up in Choteau, Carr admitted that she took all the public land out her backdoor for granted until about five years ago when more politicians started calling for the sale of public land.

“It’s the way that I make a living, it’s the way a lot of us make a living. And the trickle-down effect to my community is real,” Carr said. “Public lands are important for what they offer my community by way of access to riding, hiking and hunting, to name a few, and also these lands are crucial for the revenue generating through tourism. Public lands are crucial to the health of my community, to our community.”

Representing Montana’s Native American communities, Shane Doyle of the Crow Nation sang a Northern Cheyenne honor song before telling the crowd that the idea of public land wasn’t limited to the U.S. government. He told of Chief Plenty Coups, a Crow leader of the mid-1800s, who was so impressed by George Washington’s donation of Mount Vernon to the public that he dedicated his land to the state of Montana.

“I think back about those old timers and Plenty Coups comes to mind. If he were around today, would he be a champion of public lands?” Doyle said. “Despite all of his losses and all of his suffering, he still dedicated his last remaining piece of ground to public domain. What a leader. What a great American, what an incredible Montanan Plenty Coups was.”

But not everyone champions public land, especially in the current administration. Doyle criticized former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for recommending that the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah be dismantled. He called upon Congress to reinstate the monument’s status.

Gov. Steve Bullock gives a keynote speech at a public lands rally and looks two stories up at the crowd that filled the Capitol rotunda, Jan. 11, 2019. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

Finally, Gov. Steve Bullock spoke last, and as he has in numerous rallies, he whipped the crowd into a whooping, clapping frenzy talking about public lands being “our heritage, our birthright, one of the great equalizers, no matter who you are.”

“This sure as heck isn’t the first time we’ve gathered in this rotunda to celebrate, to reflect, to commit to the next generation, but this time, there’s a lot of reasons to celebrate. With over 3,000 bills already in the Legislative hopper, not a one of them is trying to attack our public lands or take them away from us so far,” Bullock said. “And you and I know why that is. It’s because your voices ring damn loud in this capitol.”

While issuing a challenge to the Legislature, Bullock didn’t let the federal government off the hook, saying the shutdown was hurting public land management and the economies of national park gateway communities, like West Yellowstone and Gardiner. He called on the administration and Congress to end it.
“Our parks and our public servants are not bargaining chips for policies,” Bullock said.

For the past six years when talking about the possibility of public land being sold, Bullock has responded with “Not on my watch.” This time, however, after warning about the threats to public lands that still remain, Bullock changed his mantra just a bit.

With this being his last Legislature as governor, Bullock added one more thing.

“We have to continue to build up our voices. We have to be louder, so that when those misguided politicians threaten our public lands, they can’t break through your noise,” Bullock said. “I’ve said it before, (the sale of lands) ain’t going to happen, not on my watch. And what those folks damn well better realize, they’d better look at this crowd, they’d better hear your voices and realize it’s not just not on my watch, it’s not on our watch.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

This is the third year that public lands advocates have rallied in Montana’s Capitol, hoping to ward off the proposed transfer of federal lands to state management. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)