1,000 public land advocates pack Montana Capitol: ‘Keep your hands off our public lands’

Organizers of a public lands rally estimate 1,000 people came to the Montana Capitol on Monday to support keeping public lands public. (Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service)

By Missoula Current

HELENA – Public land advocates converged on the Montana Capitol Monday to shout down suggestions that those lands be sold to private owners, or transferred to state governments.

A crowd estimated at 1,000 filled the Capitol to capacity at noon: hunters, anglers, mountain climbers, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, Montanans from all corners.

The racket they made was intended to be heard “all the way to Sanders County,” organizers said, a reference to Thompson Falls legislator Jennifer Fielder, likely the state’s loudest advocate of a public land sell-off.

“Keep public lands in public hands,” came the cry Monday. “Keep public lands in public hands.”

Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock, Democrats, addressed the crowd. So did world class mountaineer Conrad Anker of Bozeman.

“The outdoors defines us as Montanans,” Anker told the crowd. “Public lands are the great unifier. Hunters, fishers, canoeists, rock climbers.”

Preserving public lands for future generations starts, by necessity, with preserving them in public ownership, Anker said. They’re important for business, too, he said, calling on Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to not go back on his word to preserve public ownership as he is confirmed and begins work as President Donald Trump’s secretary of Interior.

The governor seized the bully pulpit with a fiery speech. “This ain’t about politics,” said Bullock. “Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, a vegetarian, these lands belong to you.”

Trout TV host Hillary Hutcheson remembered her own upbringing in and around Glacier National Park, and her efforts now to be a good parent to her two daughters by protecting the lands that are so important to their future.

“I am a proud public land owner,” she said. “This heist is an assault on my lifeblood, not just my livelihood.”

The rallying cry is not merely “Keep your hands off our public lands,” she said, “but ‘Keep your hands off our daughters’ public lands.’ ”

“If these lands are taken from our children, we will not be OK because they will not be OK,” Hutcheson said. “Our children have not yet had the chance to become who they are because of public lands. This is what we are out here to do. This is what we want.

“Sometimes, it can be extremely overwhelming. But we can do this. First, if you have been putting off joining Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, this is the time. It’s a great resource to go and learn what the transfer means and where to find the phone numbers to call. Secondly, I think it’s a good time for all of us to remember that we need to be good neighbors. As public landowners, we need to be good stewards and good neighbors to private landowners. The private land is not yours, but you can fight like hell to keep the public land public.”

(Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service)

There were advocates of the sell-off in the Rotunda during Monday’s rally, including Fielder, who has been an outspoken transfer proponent, and is sponsoring bills to both study federal land conveyance and to request conveyance. (Those bills remain on hold.)

Fielder is also CEO of the American Lands Council, the primary organization pushing for transfers across the West.