On Saturday, hundreds of hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts flooded the lawn of the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Despite a torrential downpour, many stayed to listen to speakers advocating for the protection of federal lands. Their message: keep public lands in the hands of the public.
“People showed up in droves,” Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), told OutdoorHub. “Over 300 people on a rainy Saturday when they could be out chasing elk or watching a homecoming game, it’s a big deal. It should not be understated.”
The rally was organized by several hunting and conservation groups in response to proposals for federal land to be turned over to local control. Montana is one of several states where negative attitudes towards the federal government have led to calls for public land be returned to state management, but Tawney said that such an idea would be disastrous.
“There are some concerns about the way our public lands are being managed now and I think those are valid,” Tawney said. “There are some people who say we turn them over to the states. But the states cannot afford them and will face two choices: either raise taxes, or sell public land to come up for that shortfall.”
Supporters of the proposals say that the federal government is too restrictive regarding how public lands can be used, and that the land could be better managed locally. Critics, however, say that those proposals are just stepping stones in selling the land to private developers. A recent poll by the Center for American Progress found that a majority of residents in eight Western states oppose turning over federal land. Of the 1,600 voters surveyed in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, about 59 percent opposed the idea of states assuming responsibility for federal lands. Only 35 percent of participants said they approved of the transition.
“This bipartisan research found that Americans believe we should be protecting parks and public lands for future generations, not selling them off to the highest bidder,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress, in a press release. “It also shows that the politicians and special interests behind these land seizures schemes are well outside the mainstream in the West.”
At the rally, Tawney asked the assembled crowd to imagine if the land they loved and built memories of was suddenly blocked off by a “No Trespassing” sign.
“There’s a silent majority out there that wants to keep public land in public hands,” he said. “This rally was to bring those people together, a show of force, and also to engage them.”
Tawney stressed that the issue should not be split along party lines, but something that should galvanize all outdoorsmen and women to support public lands. The poll by the Center for American Progress seemed to agree, finding that Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike oppose local management of federal lands.
“Once land is sold to private institutes, access guarantee will go out the window and most likely we’ll lose access,” Land continued. “Public land is a vital part of our hunting and fishing heritage and any thought of selling that public land wholesale, is to me nonsense.”
Tawney was joined at the rally by Senator Jon Testor (D-Montana) and former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown. The two politicians, along with an estimated 1,000 people, signed the BHA-led Sportsman’s Pledge to support public lands.
Image courtesy Land Tawney