Those who want states to take over federal land are on society’s fringe, but they can cause an outsized number of problems, including an increased threat of violence.
That was the message representatives of the Montana Human Rights Network and the Montana Wildlife Federation delivered to an audience of about 40 at the St. Regis Community Center Tuesday night.
But their words weren’t always clearly received, based upon the response of some community members.
“For an inclusive democracy to function, we need public spaces. And we need public spaces that are an essence of what it means to have democracy, which is open spaces were all can be welcome and active,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, the Montana Human Rights Network’s co-director.
Montana Wildlife Federation executive director Dave Chadwick and Human Rights Network research director Travis McAdam, a nationally recognized expert on far-right and anti-democratic movements, joined Rivas. The three tried to connect the dots between militia and alt-right dogma and that of the anti-public lands movement.
Now, Montana is home to white supremacists such as alt-right leader Richard Spencer.
Rivas said people can be attracted to the message of these groups, but most still follow the mainstream standards of society.
However, the few Richard Spencers of the world take a darker path by inciting hatred and violence, such as the Charlottesville incident, which led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Although these extremists are a small minority, they instill fear, start or perpetuate conspiracy theories and can affect a lot of people, Rivas said.
“In the moment we’re in right now, we have the rise of white nationalism, and at the same time we have a dismantling of some of our laws that protect certain groups. Our policies are being changed to allow greater discrimination after some significant advancements,” Rivas said. “When we have that situation going on, and there’s an effort to sell off public lands, I have concerns that it will lead to the creation of private spaces that allow only some people in.”
Chadwick explained the three main surges of anti-public lands sentiment, from the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s until now, and how each was a response to environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act or the Roadless Act. Invariably, the response included bills at the state level to promote the transfer of federal lands, but each time, sportsmen and public land proponents in Montana beat them back.
But in the past five years, the Bundys of Nevada have come on the scene, refusing to acknowledge the federal government. So they refuse to pay millions in federal land lease fees for cattle and incite armed takeovers of public land, including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They show the connection between the militia or white nationalist movement and the anti-federal lands push, McAdam said.
Now a recent report has documented an increase in the number of attacks, both verbal and physical, on federal employees. McAdam said harassing federal employees doesn’t help communications or land management improve.
Extremists like the Bundys refuse to follow federal law because they consider themselves “sovereign,” answerable only to God, and yet they tout a twisted reading of the U.S. Constitution, McAdam said.
It leads back to the idea of county supremacy, where either the county commission or the sheriff is believed to hold all the power to decide what is best for residents.
“The beautiful thing about living in the U.S. is how each level of our democracy works together,” Rivas said. “When one or another idea pops up over the other in a way that seems suspicious, that’s when my ears pop up.”
That’s been the case over the past two years when the Bundys brought their message to Montana three times, including a rally in Paradise, just up the road from St. Regis. That frequency worries those who track such extremist groups because they think the Bundys are developing their next move. That’s partly why Tuesday night’s panel was held in St. Regis.
“We don’t want the next Bundy war to happen here,” McAdam said.
Rivas said communities need to strengthen their ties and be able to talk to each other to limit the divisiveness and possible violence that could result.
Chadwick said Montanans disagree about how federal lands should be managed and there’s a spectrum of opinion. So it’s good when Montanans come together to find ways to compromise within that spectrum, such as the way the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act came together. That’s democracy. But federal land transfer is outside that spectrum.
“This idea of the state taking over federal land is both unworkable and wildly unpopular with Montanans. Polls have consistently demonstrated that more than two-thirds think this idea is bad policy,” Chadwick said. “People on the fringes keep extreme ideas in play.”
When the panel opened up to questions, a few people said they supported some of those ideas.
Paul Fielder, husband of Sen. Jennifer Fielder, said his wife’s whole platform was the transfer of public lands, and still Mineral and Sanders County residents re-elected her in 2016 by a margin of two-thirds. Jennifer Fielder is now CEO of the American Lands Council, which advocates for federal land transfer to the states.
“That’s the feeling of Sanders County and Mineral County. We just don’t think the federal government is doing as good a job as the state could do,” Paul Fielder said.
Another commenter jumped on the issue of wilderness – the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area south of St. Regis is still awaiting designation but wasn’t mentioned during the panel – and said he’d be the first one to tell the federal government no. Another commented they’d burn it down.
“You keep bringing up wilderness, and it drives me crazy,” the man said.
State Rep. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek, is running to replace Fielder in the Senate after she terms out in 2020.
“We heard about conspiracy theories, but there are conspiracy theories on the left and the right. I believe one of those is the fact that people want to sell off public lands,” Brown said. “I’ve known the Fielders since before they got involved with the transfer of public lands – I’ve never heard anything about any desire to do anything but protect our public lands and manage them better.”
Chadwick said a majority of Montanans opposes land transfer and that’s democracy. But if people want to improve land management and continue the successful collaboratives that are filling Montana’s lumber yards with timber, democracy is also contacting Montana’s congressional delegation and telling them to fund land management agencies so they can do their jobs better.
“Congress has to provide resources and direction for the land management agencies to do their jobs,” Chadwick said. “Right now, they’re not getting the support they need to make good decisions. They hear from a lot of angry people but they’re not getting the backing they need.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.