On Monday, a large crowd could be seen gathering inside the statehouse in Helena, Montana, chanting “Keep public lands in public hands!” The protest was organized, at least initially, by the Montana Wilderness Association a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Montana’s public lands that many are worried are about to be under siege in the new Trump Administration. It featured speakers ranging from Governor Steve Bullock to fly-fishing guide and Trout TV host Hilary Hutcheson. We talked with Kayje Booker, the Federation’s state policy director, about the rally, the stakes, and why Montanans love their public lands so much.
What concerns you most right now about the new administration’s approach to public lands?
We are very much concerned about the efforts to transfer titles to the states, as well as management to the states. Specific bills would include Chaffetz’s new bill as well as some state-level resolutions from Jennifer Fielder. She is both a state senator from Sanders country, which is in far-west Montana, and she is the head of the American Lands Council. They’re based in Utah, but they’re at the forefront of efforts to transfer federal lands to the states across the country. She has two bills right now that are in draft form — so we can’t see anything except the title — but one is to study federal transfers to the state, and the other is a resolution from the legislature requesting that the federal government turn over federal lands within the borders of Montana to the states: about 25 million acres. The state currently manages 5 million acres, so we’re talking about a complete transfer of lands — that is a huge growth in responsibilities and cost to the state government.
Why are public lands important, especially to Montanans?
Right now, all Americans own these lands. It’s a really unique and wonderful American concept that these lands belong to all of us, and we all have a say in their management. We can access millions of acres across the country. So many of us live in Montana because of the access to public lands. It’s part of our heritage as Montanans, and it’s a major part of our quality of life, being able to be close to public lands and having those places be accessible for recreation and contemplation. If those lands were privatized, we would lose our access to those special places. I myself love to hike and backpack — I started doing some fly-fishing, but I’m not very good. I do some trail running.
Ryan Zinke, just confirmed as our new Secretary of the Interior, is a Montanan himself. Do you have any concerns about him?
The concern is that his rhetoric and actions may be different. Hopefully, selecting Ryan Zinke, who’s said that he’s against transfers, is telling about how the Trump administration is approaching it. But this was a plank in the national Republican platform, and we very much think that there’s a danger that this could pass through Congress. So there’s just a lot of uncertainty right now, which is part of why we had this big rally. We think it’s an important time to let people know that this is an unpopular plan and that Montanans don’t support it. This is really being driven by the more extreme groups like the American Lands Council.
What was the rally like?
It was an amazing outpouring of energy. There were over 1,000 people there, which was twice as big as our rally two years ago. It was an amazing turnout; folks came from all over the state, and just a really great energy in the room in response to the speakers — chanting “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands.”
It was held right in the state house of the capital.
The rally was in the rotunda of the capital building, and we filled every nook and cranny, four floors of people. It was important because it was right down the hall from our legislators, and they’re in session right now. That was an opportunity to bring the people to the decision-makers, and have it done in a way where they couldn’t avoid hearing the shouts and seeing the signs and seeing the size of crowd. We brought it to them. That’s an incredibly powerful statement, where they could feel the emotion and see the faces of all of these people that gave their day for something they were so passionate about that they were willing to travel all the way to Helena to make their voices heard.