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Montana outdoor enthusiasts support federal public lands at capital rally

More than 1,000 demonstrators cheer during a public lands rally on the Montana Capitol rotunda on Jan. 30, 2017. (Thom Bridge / Independent Record)
More than 1,000 demonstrators cheer during a public lands rally on the Montana Capitol rotunda on Jan. 30, 2017. (Thom Bridge / Independent Record)

PUBLIC LANDS -- Climber Conrad Anker and Trout TV host Hilary Hutcheson were among more than 1,000 Montanans who converged on the state capital Monday to publicly oppose efforts to transfer federal lands to states and private interests.

Gov. Steve Bullock was there to support them, as he was in 2015 when another big rally packed the Capitol rotunda while Idaho sportsmen also rallied in Boise (see story here).

Here's a report on Monday's rally in Helena by Independent Record reporter Tom Kuglin:

HELENA – The Capitol rotunda played host to a raucous crowd of public land advocates Monday, many traveling from across the state to denounce land transfer efforts while calling for improving access.

Organizers estimated more than 1,000 people packed the main rotunda floor and lined the balconies above, which was about double the attendance of a similar rally held during the 2015 legislative session. Many rally-goers loaded buses in Missoula, Billings and Bozeman to attend while smaller contingencies came from other locales, including about 40 from Sanders County.

They came to tell the Legislature in no uncertain terms that public lands are not just parcels on a map but define Montana as a state, and Montanans as a people.

“This heist is an assault on my lifeblood, not just my livelihood,” fly-fishing guide and Trout TV host Hillary Hutcheson told the crowd.

Hutcheson described her childhood near Glacier National Park, the chance for young eyes to experience outdoor adventure, and the hope of passing that legacy on to her daughters.

Mountaineer Conrad Anker noted the many people using public lands and paraphrased Duwamish Chief Seattle, who famously said land is not inherited from ancestors but borrowed from future generations.

Opponents of transferring federal lands to state ownership contend that states such as Montana would be unduly burdened by owning millions of additional acres, citing firefighting and other management costs. They say hamstrung states would be forced to sell off the lands, putting public lands in private ownership.

Losing those lands would mean a loss for many Montana businesses, said CEO of Simms fishing company K.C. Walsh.

“I always remind people how important Montana and Bozeman are to the success that Simms has had and how this really takes form in attracting great people who enjoy Montana’s outdoor value and everything our state has to offer,” he said.

Small transfers and sales of federal and state lands have long occurred for a variety of reasons. Opposition centers on transfers on much larger scales that would potentially take tens of millions of acres out of federal ownership.

Supporters of federal land transfer have argued that national policies result in closed roads while stifling timber and mineral industries. They say that under state control, the lands would be better managed and become an economic catalyst for rural communities.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, responded following Monday’s rally, saying the Legislature values public input but that federal lands have been mismanaged. He put responsibility at the feet of rally organizers, saying that litigation and other efforts to maintain federal ownership stifle timber production and continue failed policies.

Thomas contended that better management under state ownership would produce revenue while benefiting wildlife. He called the notion of a state sell-off of transferred lands “silly at best” and added “the state isn’t in the business of selling lands.”

“They have their opinion and I respect their opinion, but there is no merit to their position,” he said. “If the state were to own these lands, they’d be better managed, so their position is completely fake.”

Monday’s rally took on a personal tone at times, directed at one of the leading land transfer advocates in Montana and the West. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, has been an outspoken transfer proponent, and is sponsoring legislation to study federal land conveyance and to request conveyance, although both bills remain on hold.

Fielder is also CEO of American Lands Council, the chief organization pushing for large-scale transfers across the West

Referring to Fielder’s district, Prickly Pear Land Trust Executive Director Mary Hollow said to cheers, “Let’s let them hear us down every hall in this building and all the way to Sanders County.”

The Sanders County contingency held up signs both directed at their senator and in support of maintaining federal land ownership. Trout Creek residents Daisy Carlsmith and Barb Tully made the five-hour journey by bus, standing at the top of the steps holding signs saying “Sanders County Supports Public Lands.”

“For me, it’s making sure that public lands are there for my grandchildren,” Tully said, adding that breathing clean air and access to mountain lakes are also major inspirations.

Carlsmith noted that transfer opponents are in the minority in their area – Fielder won reelection with 67 percent of the vote – but she wanted her values to be heard.

“We’re way outnumbered, but we had to come no matter who our representatives are, come and stand and say ‘no,’ ” she said.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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