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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Oct 01 2014

Public Lands in Public Hands

Public lands rally draws hundreds to the Capitol

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Father of the conservation movement, President Theodore Roosevelt believed that America was at its best when Americans drew their strength primarily from what they hold in common. On September 27, around 300 hunters, anglers and others who cherish public lands gathered on the steps of the Montana State Capitol in Helena to honor this belief and to celebrate our common ground on National Public Lands Day.

The rally was organized and sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Montana Wildlife Federation as a response to radical state and national proposals to dispose of public lands in the Treasure State.

While they could have been home watching the homecoming Cat or Griz game from the comfort of their homes, people drove and rode buses from all corners of the state, thumbing their noses at a steady rain that began that morning and didn’t let up once during the rally. They stood should-to-shoulder in the driving rain, showing just how willing they were to fight for their public lands. By noon, dozens of colorful umbrellas and hand-made placards eddied around the statue of Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher, the horse and rider appearing as if in the middle of a deep river crossing. Placards read “Keep It Public” and “Hands Off Our Public Lands.”

“We’re tied to place,” said Sen. Jon Tester, the rally’s first speaker. “We remember exactly where we were when caught that first trout... and we cannot let our treasured places be sold to the highest bidder because that is the agenda.”

“Our memories must be our kids’ memories,” he said. “Our treasured places must be there for our grandkids, and it starts with keeping our public lands public.”

The rally was a response to a proposal by the Montana Environmental Quality Council, a state legislative committee, to transfer federal lands to individual states, a move that would inevitably lead to selling off those lands to private buyers. The proposal was informed by a resolution the Republican Party passed last June, which specifically encourages Congress to “reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings... could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.”

The rally followed on the heels of a poll by the Center for Western Priorities revealing that a majority of Westerners oppose the transfer of federal lands to individual states. Among eight Westerns states where transfer proposals have been considered, the idea remains most unpopular in Montana, where 61% of residents oppose the notion.

Vickie Freyholtz, who drove to the rally from Gildford (30 miles west of Havre), is one of those residents.

“In most other countries, there are no public lands,” she said. “And if there are no more public lands here, where can we recreate? Where can we hunt? What can we do? People who work in an enclosed space need to get out and feel wilderness, feel the birds and the trees and the water.”

Carl Mattfeldt of Helena, who came to the rally pulling an oxygen tank, is another one of those residents opposing the transfer of federal lands. He’s hunted on public lands since he was seven and now takes his grandchildren hunting on them.

“I believe in the state letting us hunt where we need to and want to and not selling off to people,” he said.

Following Senator Tester at the podium, former President of the State Senate and Secretary of State Bob Brown expressed consternation that local politicians could continue to defend such a radical proposal in the face of such tremendous opposition.

"This whole idea of transferring federal lands to Montana is so unwise and so impractical that it's almost impossible to imagine it happening,” Brown said.

The Montana Wilderness Association first reported on the public lands transfer issue on our blog on August 2. Since then, letters-to-the-editor have filled newspaper opinion pages, guest columns have proliferated, and the legislative committee advancing the transfer proposal has been flooded with public criticism. According to the Helena Independent Record, the committee received 214 individual comments before an August deadline.  Of these comments, 194 or 90% were explicitly opposed a land transfer while only two comments supported the idea.

“The proponents of [the land transfer] haven't given up and neither should we,” Brown said at the rally. “We should fight it hard in the spirit of my hero, the great Theodore, who advised, ‘Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.’” The crowd laughed, whistled, and applauded in response. Clearly, the collection of individuals in the crowd was fully prepared to follow the advice of our 26th president.

“The National Public Lands Day rally was a crucial response to a dangerous and impractical idea that’s unfortunately taken root in our legislature and in Congress,” says Brian Sybert, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association. “If proponents of this idea refuse to back down, we will fight back and continue to fight until they do.”

According to Tester, Brown and University of Montana political science professor Robert Saldin, we have every reason to expect that fight.

At the Montana Wilderness Association, we’ll be ready

—Gabriel Furshong is the State Program Director for the Montana Wilderness Association. He writes from Missoula, Mont.