HELENA – On Friday, the Montana State Capitol rotunda was crowded with people from across Montana. They had gathered for the Rally for Public Lands, an event advocating maintaining and expanding public lands in the state.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, opened the event, pointing to those lands as an economic asset for Montana.
“Our public lands power $7 billion a year in Montana’s economy,” he said. “How many jobs? 73,000. So there’s your statistic.”
He called on Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which he called “the best conservation tool we’ve got.” The LWCF, which invests money from oil and gas revenues into acquiring and developing public lands, expired in October after Congress couldn’t reach an agreement on extending it.
Maggie Carr, the co-owner of Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau, said her business — and her community — rely on access to public lands like the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“The trickle-down effect to my community is real,” she said. “Our business employs other locals and generates money that is spent locally, which helps keep our small towns alive.”
This was the third Rally for Public Lands, following rallies during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions. The event was sponsored by environmental and outdoor groups, including the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Organizers estimate at least 1,800 people were in attendance.
Margaret Webster came in from Billings, carrying signs reading things like “Public Lands are Sacred.” She said she had attended at least two other rallies to support public lands.
“Because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, and we can’t afford to lose them. That’s one of the most important heritages of our country, is our public lands.”
The event closed with a speech from Gov. Steve Bullock. He called for a quick end to the federal government shutdown, which he said is having clear negative effects on Montana national parks and on the communities surrounding them.
“It’s led to trash piling up at Yellowstone and Glacier, it’s led to the cancellation of visits, to the inability to do offseason work, it’s hurting the local economies of our gateway communities,” he said. “Our parks and our public servants are not bargaining chips for policies.”
Bullock also called on those in attendance to oppose any proposals to transfer federal lands in Montana to the state. He said any move to transfer land would be a first step toward taking it out of public hands.
“We cannot and we must not leave to our kids and grandkids anything less that the unrivaled outdoor experience and heritage that our parents and grandparents worked so hard to preserve for us,” he said.
Bullock said he was pleased that, as of Friday, no bills had been introduced in the state Legislature to support land transfers.
But State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls who has called for studies of transferring federal lands in previous sessions, said the rally painted an incorrect picture of what transfer would mean. In an open letter, she criticized what she called a “false narrative” created by the organizers of the event.
“The fatal flaw of their thinking is a failure to recognize that nobody cares more for our State than the people who live right her in it,” she wrote.
Fielder said federally controlled lands have been mismanaged for decades, and that the state could do a better job of balancing natural resource development, recreation and the environment.
“The question isn’t whether or not we will keep our public lands public,” she wrote. “Of course we will. The question is who should manage them — Montanans, or bureaucrats, lobbyists, and politicians headquartered in Washington DC.”
But Bullock said Friday’s rally highlighted the opposition to any land transfers.
“They’d better look at this crowd, they’d better hear your voices and realize it’s not just ‘Not on my watch,’ it’s ‘Not on our watch,” he said.
Sen. Steve Daines’ office sent out a statement Friday, saying he is also committed to protecting public lands in Montana.
“From reintroducing the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, to continuing to push for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to expanding access for sportsmen and for those who love the beautiful Montana outdoors, Senator Daines has started this year off strong continuing his bipartisan work and leadership to protect Big Sky Country’s public lands,” said Katie Schoettler, a spokesperson for Daines.