Montana’s massive public lands rally, one year later

President’s Day is a good time for Montanans to look back a year ago at the remarkable display of support for public lands that came together in a massive rally at the state Capitol.

On that day, 500 Montanans crammed the rotunda to show how much public lands mean to them. Organized by MWF, Montana Wilderness Association, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the rally brought together everyone from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to Montana Audubon – and the crowd included hunters and hikers, bird watchers and ATV riders, berry pickers and photographers. It included Montanans of all walks of life, every political persuasion and all ages. Our mountains, forests, foothills, prairies and rivers are more precious than gold, and it showed in the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The rally came in the midst of a state Legislative session that saw an unprecedented attack on our public lands. Some state legislators pushed for the “transfer” of national forests and other public lands to state ownership. They glossed over the details, including that such a transfer would require the largest expansion of state government since statehood and massive tax increases to cover the management costs including firefighting. Ultimately, the state would be left to sell off our lands to cover those management costs.

The transfer of public lands would also dramatically curtail the access that Montanans enjoy. It would lead to less multiple-use recreation, which is the charge of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Proponents of the transfer had their talking points down, and they didn’t want to let facts get in the way of their story line. But we’re not falling for it. And the 500 people who turned out to keep public lands in public hands helped defeat every bill looking at the transfer of federal lands.

The takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last month in Oregon brings another point about last year’s public lands rally into sharp focus. While our members were passionate and fiery, nobody brought guns (even though many were life-long hunters with cabinets full of them). Nobody vandalized public property, threatened public servants, or laid claim to owning public buildings or land.

The Malheur occupiers espoused the public land transfer agenda by invading a community, taking over public property, and threatening government employees. Here in Montana, we defeated the public land transfer agenda by exercising the constitutional right to peaceably assemble. We should all be proud of our democratic process and grateful to our elected officials for hearing the will of the people.

Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.