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A vocal crowd of public-land enthusiasts packed the Capitol rotunda Friday to voice both support for federal lands and opposition to recent withdraws of some protections.

The Rally for Public Lands returned for its third Legislative session, hosted by several conservation and political groups, and bringing speakers into the heart of a mass of public land advocates, to proclaim the importance of those lands to Montana and Montanans. The estimated size of the crowd varies from around 1,000 to 2,000 people. 

“Today we celebrate our public lands, and I want you to make it loud and clear so that every legislator, every lobbyist and everybody else in this building knows exactly what our priorities are,” said Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust and emcee for the rally to the crowd.

The debate over federal land management and ownership has escalated in recent years amid proposals to transfer ownership to states.

Supporters of federal land transfer believe the move would lead to better management and state revenues, but opponents believe the high cost of management would see those lands sold to private interests.

The Rally for Public Lands began in 2015 and has evolved to include advocating for and against specific policies before Congress and opposing moves by the Trump administration to shrink environmental protections in some places.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made a surprise appearance, stepping to the podium and voicing his frustration with inaction at the federal level on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund takes a portion of offshore oil royalties to be spent on conservation and public open land projects, but failed to pass during the last Congress, despite the support of Montana’s delegation. He singled out Utah Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, who came to Montana last year to campaign against Tester, for casing the vote that held up the legislation.

Tester also took a shot at state Republicans, pointing to their party platform that supports federal land transfer to the state, and saying it needs to be removed.

Montana Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, in an interview said the notion that Republicans do not support public lands or want to see them sold is false, and he believes the narrative being pushed is meant to drive a wedge between voters.

“I was delighted to see so many Montanans up here supporting public lands, and I know that Republicans … support public lands 100 percent,” he said. “I know that if we had anything we wanted to do on public lands it’d be that we want them better managed and to have more access for the public on public lands than our environmental friends seem to want. They seem to value bad management and closure on the Forest Service Lands to the public, but we don’t, we want them open to the public, vibrant and held in public hands forever.”

Following Tester was Ryan Busse, vice president of sales for Kimber Firearms and board chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who called public lands “the manifestation of democracy” by providing something real that the public can see, touch and experience.

“Nowhere else on this globe do the people own such a wide swath of true natural assets, perhaps the most true living example of equal justice,” he told the crowd. “This land is one of the few places that every man, woman and child is equal when they set foot on that land.”

Calling them “public land patriots,” Busse named historic and present conservationists and asked ralliers to make the foundation of support even stronger.

Choteau outfitter Maggie Carr called working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness a great honor for her personally, and the legacy of public lands an honor for all U.S. citizens.

“These lands have been fundamental to my upbringing and how I think about the world,” she said. “… In the last five years or so I’ve felt that foundation shift and I have realized there are threats to public lands and these threats have hit me hard. Not just because I love these areas, and I do, we all do, but because it is a threat to my livelihood.”

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Educator and Crow Tribe member Shane Doyle began his speech with a drum and song, which he described as an honor song of the Northern Cheyenne. He spoke of the importance of the Crazy Mountains to his tribe and the feeling he gets when he passes them on the interstate and knowing they are open to the public.

“Really what more can you ask for, what more can anyone ask for than these incredible treasure of public lands that we have?” he asked, to which someone from the crowd called out, “More.”

Doyle blasted former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, saying it ignored a five-tribe collation and millions of Americans who opposed the action.

The rally’s keynote speaker was once again Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who, along with other politicians, has seized public lands as a core issue. He told the crowd that it had reason to celebrate, because of the more than 3,000 bills before the legislature, “not one of them is trying to attack our public lands or take them away from us so far. You and I know why that is, it’s because your voices ring damn loud in this Capitol.”

Bullock defended public lands as an economic driver and critical to Montana’s quality of life, but believes several threats continue to persist, including the holdup on LWCF re-authorization and the current federal government shutdown.

“Our parks and our public servants are not bargaining chips for policies, it’s time to open up the government,” he said.

Bullock continued, directing his ire toward President Donald Trump.

“The president does not understand the value of our public lands, and an attack on our public lands anywhere is an attack on our public lands everywhere,” he said. “It flies in the face of who we are as Montanans and who we are as Americans.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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