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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Jan 31 2017

‘These Lands Are Our Birthright’

After more than a thousand turn out for public lands rally in Helena on Monday, a transfer bill is withdrawn

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UPDATE (February 2): The message we sent at the rally hit its mark in Washington, D.C. This morning, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz announced he was withdrawing a bill that he introduced last week and we rallied against on Monday. The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act would have disposed of 3.3 million acres of public lands in 10 western states. 

"Thanks to the more than one thousand Montanans who showed up at the Rally for Public Lands on Monday and everyone else who has stood up for our outdoor way of life, 3.3 million acres of American public lands are no longer on the chopping block in Washington," says MWA Executive Director Brian Sybert. "We can expect more attacks on our public lands, but today we can celebrate a victory that is a testament to the power Montanans hold in defending our public lands heritage from those who want to steal it from us."

Yesterday at 6 a.m., Mindy Ferrell boarded a bus in Trout Creek, Montana (pop. 261) with 39 of her neighbors from across Sanders County – the home of Jennifer Fielder, CEO of American Lands Council and Montana’s most infamous opponent of national public lands. Ferrell and her friends traveled 235 miles and five hours to the state capitol in Helena. There, they squeezed into the rotunda with more than one thousand Montanans to rally for public lands, twice the number that attended the last public lands rally, held in 2015.

“We came here to make it clear that not everyone in Sanders County agrees with the aspirations of Jennifer Fielder,” Ferrell said. “Our backyard, our quality of life is what the entire United States yearns for.”

Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust and event emcee, kicked off the rally by leading the crowd in a chant that electrified the building.

“Let’s let them hear us down every hall in this building and all the way to Sanders County,” she said. “Keep public lands in public hands! Keep public lands in public hands!”

North Face ambassador and legendary mountaineer Conrad Anker was the first featured speaker. “The outdoors define us as Montanans,” he said. “The weather, the winter, the summers, they’re really what give us the fabric of who we are.”

Hilary Hutcheson, a fly fishing guide in northwest Montana and host of Trout TV, echoed Anker’s sentiment.

She called public lands her “life blood” and urged mothers and fathers to raise their children – and especially their daughters – outside, suggesting that outdoor activity leads to outdoor activism.

“If little girls are not allowed to [get] the dirt of public lands under their finger nails,” she warned, “then we run the risk of losing those wild Montana women who make history.

Sen. Jon Tester called into the rally from an airport while waiting for a flight. He reminded listeners that new threats to public lands are emerging every day.

“Just last week, a Utah Congressman put up a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of public land,” Tester said. “Furthermore, the House of Representatives [recently] passed a bill to make it easier to sell off our public lands.

“People are trying to steal our public lands,” he declared, “and we can't let that happen."

C.E.O. of Bozeman-based Simms fishing company, K.C. Walsh told the crowd that Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, our likely next secretary of of the Interior, has often publically vowed to fight lands transfer. The crowd reacted in jeers, some shouting that Zinke had gone back on his word by voting for a rule change in the House of Representatives that makes it easier to sell off public lands.

“The punch line,” Walsh said, “is if he’s confirmed, we all need to hold him accountable to his public statements.” The crowd roared in agreement.

Governor Steve Bullock spoke last and began his remarks with a rhetorical question: “We have 30 million acres [of public land] in Montana, and the beauty is we don’t need permission to go on them, do we?” (Watch Gov. Bullock's thundering speech.)

The crowd offered a deafening “No!” in response.

“These lands are our heritage,” Bullock continued. “These lands are our birthright. These lands are one of our great equalizers. The size of your checkbook does not define whether you have the right to access our streams and rivers, or whether you have the right to some of the finest hunting lands in in the world because we all own them.”

Bullock promised to veto any bill that even hinted at transferring American public lands to individual states. He also called on legislators to invest in the future of public lands and wildlife by supporting Habitat Montana, a popular state program that funnels revenue from out-of-state hunting licenses to protecting imperiled wildlife habitat and creating access to previously inaccessible public lands.

The rally came a day before Colorado College released its 2017 "Conservation in the West" poll, showing that 58% of Montanans currently oppose a stake takeover of public lands.

Anker, Walsh, and Hutcheson all touted Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy and cautioned politicians to remember that these dollars support 64,000 jobs across our state.
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“These lands are our heritage. These lands are our birthright. These lands are one of our great equalizers. The size of your checkbook does not define whether you have the right to access our streams and rivers, or whether you have the right to some of the finest hunting lands in in the world because we all own them.” - Gov. Steve Bullock

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But it was Hutcheson’s message – “If we can ensure little girls’ connection to public lands, then we will ensure our life blood”—that seemed to resonate most with Ferrell, a mother of two grown boys. Like many Montanans, her eagerness to defend public lands is rooted in her childhood.

“We were singing girl scout songs on the bus because so many of us had been through scouts or campfire girls,” Ferrell explained. “I can remember camping with my mother from the time I was seven years old.”

“In Montana, our public lands are the key to healthy families. We own these lands, and we need to make sure that deed of trust isn’t stolen before we can pass it on to our children and theirs.”

- Gabriel Furshong, MWA deputy director