Roughly 2,000 people packed into the state capitol in Helena on Jan. 11 for a raucous rally in support of public lands, during which throngs of residents from diverse backgrounds across Montana held up signs, chanted and made their voices heard both figuratively and literally.
The event was the third in a series of rallies held every two years, beginning in 2015. The 2017 gathering was a similarly boisterous affair that drew more than 1,000 people at the height of a heated national debate over federal lands transfer.
The organizers of this year’s rally included a varied coalition of groups representing hunters, anglers and outdoor recreationists of all stripes, conservationists, policy and land-use advocates, and business interests.
The speakers included Maggie Carr, co-owner of Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau; Ryan Busse, chairman of the board for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers; and Shane Doyle, an educator and member of the Crow Tribe in southeastern Montana.
The keynote speaker was once again Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, while U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made an unannounced appearance and speech, zeroing in on the fate of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired last fall after Congress failed to reauthorize it.
Busse, a Kalispell resident, said organizers were “pleasantly surprised” by the large turnout as he and other advocates continue fighting against the weakening of protections on public lands.
“I don’t like to live in a world where we have to have a rally for something we know is good in order to save it, but the enthusiasm was awesome,” Busse said. “It was fantastic.”
Advocates have philosophically described the nation’s public lands in terms of equal justice, representing a rare form of shared property accessible to all, but have also taken to framing their impact in more tangible dollars-and-cents figures.
During his speech, Tester pointed to studies showing that public lands “power $7 billion a year in Montana’s economy” and provide 73,000 jobs. Carr described the ripple effects that her business, dependent on public lands, has throughout her community.
“The trickle-down effect to my community is real,” Carr said in a video clip of the rally. “Our business employs other locals and generates money that is spent locally, which helps keep our small towns alive.”
Busse said the public’s understanding of how federal lands and outdoor recreation impact the economy is far greater than even two years ago, and he praised the role of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation in fostering that knowledge. Whitefish’s Rachel VandeVoort is director of the office.
“Rachel is doing a fantastic job, just in raising awareness of the outdoor economy,” he said.
Bullock said the federal government shutdown is having harmful impacts on public lands and communities that rely on them.
“Our parks and our public servants are not bargaining chips for policies,” the governor said.
“We cannot and must not leave to our kids and grandkids anything less than the unrivaled outdoor experience and heritage that our parents and grandparents worked so hard to preserve for us,” he added.
Busse hopes the rally’s messages reached the ears of state lawmakers convening for the Legislative Session, as well as politicians in D.C., as they consider land-management legislation.
“I’m a believer in political pressure,” he said. “If the general populace will show up to the tune of 2,000 people and take off work to show up on a Friday afternoon, there’s some political will. So I’m hopeful.”