If anyone doubts whether Montanans treasure public lands, they should have stood in the Capitol rotunda on Monday as more than 1,000 chanted the modern Montana mantra: "Keep public lands in public hands."
For the second Legislature in a row, conservation groups organized a public-lands rally to rattle the halls of the capitol with the full-throat roar of those opposed to any bills furthering public-land transfer. And for the second Legislature in a row, Gov. Steve Bullock whipped the crowd into a fervor, shouting his tumbling words loud enough for those standing in the vaulted arches two floors above to hear. He once again vowed to veto any land transfer bills.
"You know what's great? Every one of us owns these public lands. And we don't need permission to go on them, do we?" Bullock said, his eyes searching out the hundreds leaning over railings on the second floor above. "It's time we send a message to that floor of the building that proposals to transfer our public lands or study the transfer of public lands have no place in this building and no place in Montana."
Cheers went up, especially from those holding Sanders County signs. Based up on the dozen or more signs, Sanders County was well represented, and the sign holders made it clear that they didn't support the efforts of Sanders County Senator Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls.
Fielder has been the main legislator pushing public-land transfer bills for the past three sessions. During that time, she has also been a member of the American Lands Council, a Utah-based organization intent on promoting the transfer of federal land to the states. Then in 2016, she took over from Utah Rep. Ken Ivory as CEO for the American Lands Council.
But Montanans have more than Fielder to worry about. The GOP-led Congress is moving closer to legislation that would make public-land transfer - once thought highly improbable if not impossible - easier.
Last week, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz reintroduced a bill that calls for the sale of 3.3 million acres of federally owned public land in 10 Western states. That follows on the heels of action in early January, when the House of Representatives passed a rule that any transfer of lands would be assumed to cost taxpayers nothing even if there is a cost. This makes it easier for Congress to pass such bills without having to justify a cost.
Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke was one of those who voted in favor of the rule, which didn't win him many fans in Montana. So when guest speaker K.C. Walsh, Simms Fishing Company CEO, told the crowd in the rotunda that Montanans and several sportsmen's groups were happy that a Montanan - Zinke - was being considered for Secretary of the Interior, the crowd for once did not cheer. Instead, the hall filled with hisses and catcalls followed by a building chorus of boos. Walsh tried to cajole the crowd, acknowledging their unwavering support for public lands.
"The punchline is, if (Zinke is) confirmed, we all need to hold him accountable," Walsh said.
While the crowd didn't respond well to Montana's lone Congressman, they applauded for Sen. Jon Tester, who was in an airport on his way back to Washington, D.C. but called in via cellphone to talk to the rally. Shouting over speakerphone held up to a microphone, Tester reassured the audience that he would continue to oppose bills that would transfer public lands.
"But you gotta do something. Make sure your voices are heard. The next generation of sportsmen are counting on it," Tester said.
More voices are joining in. While this year's rally attendance was estimated at more than 1,000, the rally two years ago attracted just half that many. This year, it wasn't just hunters and conservationists. As Bullock said, there were ranchers, anglers, hikers, bikers, climbers, veterans, parents, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and vegetarians. That growing coalition was represented by other speakers, such as mountaineering legend Conrad Anker and fly-fishing guide and TV host Hilary Hutcheson. Anker also called on Zinke to keep his word, to promises made of protecting public lands and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped purchase important wildlands.
"We're all in this together. The outdoors defines us as Montanans," Anker said. "When I think about public lands, I think about Chief Seattle when he said, to paraphrase, that we're only borrowing this land from future generations and that all decisions that we make should be based upon seven generations or 200 years. And the first step is keeping public lands in the hands of the public and not to privatize them."