Laura Lundquist

Missoula Current) Few things can motivate Montanans to stand outside for close to an hour in below-zero temperatures like rallying to protect public lands.

That’s what more than 200 people from around Montana did on Thursday after the call went out across the state to show state politicians that Montanans are watching legislators’ attempts to steal money from a popular public land fund.

During the past five Legislative sessions, the Public Lands rally was held in the rotunda, where loud chants of “Keep Public Lands In Public Hands” would interrupt legislators’ conversations. This year, the rotunda wasn’t available at noon, so people bundled in parkas and pack boots and carried their signs to the Capitol steps as the thermometer read -3 and snow began to fall, adding white highlights to the black statue of Gov. Thomas Meagher.

Emcee Mary Hollow, director of Helena’s Prickly Pear Land Trust, reminded the crowd that the Montana Constitution bestows the right to a clean and healthful environment, which supports Montana’s two largest industries: outdoor recreation and agriculture.

“There are bills in this Legislature that seek to take that away,” Hollow said, before teaching the crowd a call-and-response chant. “I want you to be so loud that you shake the windows in this building behind me. Because there happen to be some people in there that need to hear that message.”

After Hollow successively prompted with “Clean water,” “Clean air,” and “Abundant wildlife,” the crowd shouted, “Is our right.” The crowd took up the chant spontaneously throughout the rally, changing it to “It’s our right,” their shouts condensing into the air around them as mittens muffled their clapping.

Helmville rancher Cole Mannix pointed out that lands, public or private, are more than a right; they bring with them a duty and responsibility to share and preserve the land and the people who depend on it. He encouraged the crowd to build stronger relationships between conservation and agriculture, which share several common interests, including preserving clean water, open space and healthy habitat.

“I don’t want to give up on the natural world and go eat mush with Elon Musk on his spaceship. I wanna eat meat, for God’s sake, real food,” Mannix said. “We face serious questions. Do we face a development future that looks like the Denver Metro area? Do we face a water future that looks like the Colorado River basin? We have a great deal of work to do. So, why at this time, would we be looking to cut $30 million from the Habitat Montana Program?”

Public lands supports assemble on the steps of the Capitol for a photo after Thursday's rally. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Public lands supports assemble on the steps of the Capitol for a photo after Thursday's rally. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Blackfeet member Mariah Gladstone said the concept of public lands is older than Montana itself. Native Americans shared and took care of the land for centuries before the concept of “private property” created the need for public lands.

“We have the right to a clean and healthful environment, not just for ourselves, but for the future. You know there is an indigenous proverb that talks about thinking seven generations in the future. That’s what the Montana Constitution aimed to do, and we’re not going to let them take that away,” Gladstone said.

Hannah Muskiewicz, a young Helena teacher, described a montage of scenes from growing up in Montana’s outdoors, saying that public lands raised her and she wouldn’t be who she is without them.

“I’m an educator, and each Monday morning, my elementary schoolers come to me with stories of weekends spent hunting, skiing or walking their dogs. I watch as the lands that lifted me up, shook me off and pushed me forward do the same to the next generation,” Muskiewicz said. “That is why I am here today - to ensure that the magic of these lands lives long enough to save another generation, just as they have saved me.”

Ryan Callahan, conservation director for MeatEater, also credited growing up near the Rattlesnake and Bob Marshall wildernesses with showing him the importance of such places and the need to preserve what wild lands remain in Montana. Being able to stand in places like that made it worth standing in stuffy Legislative committee rooms, Callahan said.

“There’s a lot of change happening in the state, and like Mary said earlier, there are a lot of bad ideas that get floated around. But it’s our job as Montanans, as voters, to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that one is not going to become a new regulation or a new rule change or an amendment to what was previously a good idea.”

Callahan urged the crowd to thank legislators for something before telling them how to vote. He reminded the crowd of the few conservation wins of 2022, such as the creation of a new wildlife management area at the foot of the Snowy Mountains near Lewistown. The 9-square mile property was partly paid for with Habitat Montana money.

“There are three bills looking to dismantle Habitat Montana, which is an amazing tool in our toolbox. And the best way to start the conversation, as to say ‘Vote no,’ is to say ‘Thank you so much’ for something good. If they don’t hear ‘thank you,’ they may just think you’re never going to be happy. And it’s okay to say ‘thank you for this, and by the way, we want more.’ Because the state is a-growing; we see it all the time. We just want it to grow smart. We need to start planning for the long term.”

The three bills causing concern are House Bill 669, which would strip marijuana tax revenue from all conservation efforts, including Habitat Montana, parks and trail and nongame wildlife; Senate Bill 357, which would ban perpetual conservation easements; and SB 342 allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails.

Groups backing the rally included Wild Montana, Montana Backcountry Hunter and Anglers, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Audubon, The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, Montana Backcountry Horsemen, Outdoor Alliance, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Business for Montana Outdoors, Mountain Mamas, and Montana Trails Coalition.

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