Montana’s public lands: Defend them, or they’ll be lost, panelists say

When podcast host Aaron Weiss asked the panel why they thought public land was so important to Montanans, all four had different answers, from the vast extent of Montana forests and grasslands to Montana’s reputation for conservation leadership. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

America’s public lands will remain public only if Americans defend them.

That was the main message of a public lands forum hosted Thursday evening at Missoula’s Imagine Nation Brewery by the nonprofit Center for Western Priorities.

But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill informational forum – it was also a live recording session. The recording will be released as the fifth on-the-road podcast this summer for “Go West, Young Podcast,” which Aaron Weiss, Center for Western Priorities deputy director, has been producing for the past three years to highlight conservation and public-land issues around the West. The other live locations were in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

“We are a show about America’s parks and public lands,” Weiss said into his microphone. “Happy National Public Lands Day. We are taping it on a Thursday but you’re probably listening to it on Saturday. I hope you’re getting outside to enjoy our public lands.”

With the flair of a talk-show host, Weiss – a former broadcast journalist – cued music, riffed on current events and tossed questions at his four panelists for about an hour as a couple dozen spectators watched.

It was appropriate for Montana to be featured in advance of Public Lands Day because a majority of Montanans value their public lands for all the recreation and economic benefits they provide. In May, a University of Montana poll found that a growing proportion of Montanans support public lands, wilderness and related funding.

When Weiss asked the panel why they thought public land was so important to Montanans, all four had different answers, from the vast extent of Montana forests and grasslands to Montana’s reputation for conservation leadership.

“People’s values around public lands are held very deeply, and it’s something that transcends red and blue,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, National Wildlife Federation vice president for public lands. “It’s Public Lands Day on Saturday but for Montanans, everyday is Public Lands Day.”

Aaron Weiss

Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers executive director, said public land has climbed into the top four or five issues that influence Montana voters. The increase in interest and awareness also led to his organization growing from 1,000 to 40,000 members in the past six years.

Tawney and others credited Sen. Jon Tester’s unending support for public lands as critical in Tester’s 2018 election win over challenger Matt Rosendale. Rosendale supported the sell-off of public lands before 2018 but hasn’t .

“I think it’s a big reason why (Tester) won,” Tawney said. “I think it’s a reflection of the state. I think Tracy’s comments about ‘this goes across political lines’ – my gut says that (happened) in that election. I would hope that permeates to other states across the West.”

However, not everyone values public lands. A small contingent of Americans argue that the government shouldn’t own land, so the land should be given to the states or sold to the highest bidder.

Aaron Murphy, Montana Conservation Voters executive director, said that would be a huge blow to Montana’s outdoors economy, which supports 71,000 jobs and generates more than $7 billion in consumer spending, according to a October 2018 Headwaters Economics report.

“The threat is still imminent,” Murphy said. “We have to keep that fight up. Because there are people who have figured out that, if you say the right things, and say ‘I support public lands’ but then they turn around and vote against them or they ask for less than full funding, those public lands are under threat.”

The funding Murphy was referring to is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was finally made permanent at the beginning of this year, but Congress has never allocated the full amount of $900 million annually in offshore-drilling royalties.

Sen. Steve Daines sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and promised full funding but later proposed an amount of $600 million.

This week, the committee settled on an appropriation of $450 million, half of what it should be.

Stone Manning called the LWCF the unsung hero of American conservation, because it’s helped pay for so many public lands and parks over more than 50 years, including Missoula’s Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo and dozens of fishing access sites across the state.

Following up on Murphy’s statement about “saying the right things,” state Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said Montanans value their access to public land, but she cautioned that the word “access” has developed some alternative meanings.

“I think that phrase has been co-oped by some people who oppose conservation on public lands,” Marler said. “They talk about access in terms of more motorized access or not protecting it at all so everyone can do whatever they want. It’s important to pay attention to the vocabulary and context.”

Tawney agreed, saying some politicians give only lip service to access in order to get something else.

“There’s hardly any place in this country where you have to walk into or use horses. These places are finite, compared to where you can recreate on a motorcycle or ATV,” Tawney said. “All should have a place on the landscape, but there shouldn’t be all access everywhere all the time. I think when you hear “access” that’s what they’re trying to get to.”

Finally, after another disheartening report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released this week – saying the oceans and frozen areas of the planet are degrading faster than predicted – the panelists said climate change makes keeping public land that much more important. Many places some Montanans enjoyed in their childhood are not the same because of increasing drought, wildfire and warming waters. 

And more change is coming.

“What we’re gifting my kids is absolutely ridiculous, and we’re not dealing with it in a real way,” Tawney said. “Whether you think humans are engaged in climate change or not, we should be thinking about how we can do the best for fish and wildlife and our natural resources – clean air and clean water. Sticking our head in the sand and saying it’s a hoax or it’s a political issue is not looking at the real issue.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at