By Caitlin Piserchia, Conservation Outreach Fellow

For the third legislative session in a row, the Public Lands Rally stormed the Capitol building to remind legislators that protecting public lands is part of what it means to be a Montanan.

Over a thousand Montanans from across the state filled the Capitol rotunda on Friday, January 11th to send a clear message that Montanans will not allow the legislature to sell off our public lands to private interests. Throughout the event, the rallying cry “keep public lands in public hands” rang out through the halls of the capitol. Along with star speakers Ryan Busse, Maggie Carr, and Shane Doyle, Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Tester both made cameos to support the effort. And a number of Forward Montana staff (including QUACK 1 & 2) joined the crowd to make sure legislators “don’t duck out” on young Montanans.

The broad coalition organizing the rally aims to stave off threats to public lands at the state and federal level, and the lineup of speakers amplified these aims. Jon Tester voiced his frustration over Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has long redirected offshore oil royalties towards protecting public lands. Ryan Busse, board chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said that public lands are “the manifestation of democracy,” reminding the crowd how important equal access to public lands is; “this land is one of the few places that every man, woman, and child is equal when they set foot on that land.” Maggie Carr, an outfitter in the Bob Marshall, talked about the threats to her livelihood. Educator and Apsaalooké (Crow) nation member Dr. Shane Doyle opened with a Northern Cheyenne honor song and reminded the crowd of the history behind Montana’s public lands, which have been homelands and sacred places to Montana tribes for centuries. He talked about the importance of the Crazy Mountains to the Northern Cheyenne and told the story of Chief Plenty Coups, who, despite seeing much of his treaty land stolen by the state, chose to dedicated his last piece of property to the public domain. Governor Bullock closed with the promise that Montana’s public lands will not be sold off on his watch, and reprimanded Congress for the continued government shutdown: “our parks and our public servants are not bargaining chips for policies.”

The crowd, representing a broad swath of Montanans, apparently sent a strong enough message to be heard in Washington. Last week, with a nod to backlash around the country,  Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah decided to withdraw H.R. 621, a bill that would have sold off over 3.3 million acres of public lands around the country, including some protected lands in Montana.

On the home front, we know we still need to be vigilant. Despite one thousand Montanans showing up in Helena, and despite over 400 additional pledges to protect public lands collected before the rally, we know state legislators continue to introduce bad bills on public lands. As the legislative session continues, eight Montana organizations– from Forward Montana, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and six others– recently published an op-ed in the Montana Standard to remind legislators we’re not going to back down:

“A message to Sen. Thomas, Sen. Fielder and other elected officials who are trying to eliminate our public lands and waters:

Anglers, hikers, skiers, campers, hunters, kayakers and other Montanans who enjoy the outdoors have united to ensure that America’s legacy of public lands will stay public. We remain united and vigilant. And we will continue fighting any attempts to take public lands out of our hands.”

Read the joint follow-up op-ed by the rally organizing committee in the Montana Standard here!

And for updates on whether or not our elected officials are protecting our public lands: follow @dontduckmt on Instagram!