In 2017, Sen. Steve Daines introduced a bill that would have stripped protection from nearly 500,000 acres of public lands, and he did it without gathering any input from the public. Had it passed, it would have been the biggest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history – a radical bill to say the least, one that a mere 8% of Montanans favor, according to the 2020 University of Montana Public Land Survey.
With a face that wasn’t exactly straight, Daines nonetheless said in an interview he gave last year to Montana PBS: “I probably have the best record of protecting public lands than anybody who’s served from Montana in Washington, D.C. in a long, long time.”
Columnist and political pundit David Brooks may as well have been talking about Daines when he said of another politician, “For him, there is a virtue in shamelessness.”
Daines’ shamelessness has been on near constant display lately, most notably in his attacks on Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, President Biden’s historic nominee for secretary of the Interior. If confirmed (and, at the time of writing, she appeared to be headed that way), she would become the first Native American to not only hold this position, but also to have secretarial position on any presidential cabinet.
A member of the Laguna Pueblo, she will, if confirmed, oversee agencies that carry the bulk of U.S. trust obligations to Native nations and peoples, making her a profound and commonsense choice for this position. She will also oversee several public land management agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her history as vice-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and chair of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Land Committee make her more than qualified for the job.
In his statements about Haaland and inn her confirmation hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines has ignored the significance and appropriateness of her nomination and resorted to dog whistling, using the word “radical” again and again to describe her and her views on climate change – that we must invest in more clean energy to mitigate the deadly impacts it’s having around the globe.
If Haaland’s views on climate change are radical, so too are the views of tens of thousands of Montanans who also believe we must develop more clean energy in response to climate change, or else we’ll continue suffering through longer and more intense wildfire seasons and continue losing what we love about this state, including clean and cold waters, healthy forests, and abundant fish and wildlife populations.
Maintaining status quo and prioritizing oil and gas on public lands above all else, as Daines is advocating, would be the radical choice in this case.
Another radical choice would be to sell off our public lands – something Daines also seems to be comfortable with, given his past support of William Perry Pendley. A man who wears his extremism on his sleeve (his Twitter handle is “Sagebrush_Rebel”), Pendley illegally served for more than a year as acting director of the BLM. In 2019, Daines said he would support Pendley if he were nominated as director of the agency, even though Pendley had been an outspoken advocate for selling off public lands.
Former President Trump did later nominate Pendley for the position, but quickly withdrew the nomination after it became clear that Pendley was too toxic to survive a confirmation hearing.
In response to Daines’ attack on Haaland, members of the Montana American Indian Caucus wrote a letter to him (and Rep. Matt Rosendale) rightly condemning his offensive and hypocritical rhetoric. We stand with Montana’s Native American leaders in condemnation of Daines’ remarks. We also stand with Montana’s 12 tribes and America’s 550-plus Native nations in support of Haaland.
If Daines really is the public lands champion he claims to be, perhaps now would be the time to actually demonstrate that. He can start by supporting Montanans who are working locally on solutions for protecting public lands and by canning the sort of divisive, toxic rhetoric he’s been using to smear Haaland.
Karen Aspevig Stevenson is a retired teacher and public lands advocate from Miles City. Kathy Hundley is a substitute school teacher and backcountry horsewoman from Darby.