The crowd inside the Montana state capitol was chanting, "Keep public lands in public hands” — so loudly, as Kayje Booker puts it, that “it felt like the building was shaking.” Booker is the the state policy director at the Montana Wilderness Association, which helped organize the rally; she was still shocked by how many people showed up. About two years ago, only about 500 people had gathered in Helena to show their support for these lands, which are owned by the federal government and run by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or other agencies — and that was on a holiday weekend. This year, the rally was held on a workday in January. Attendance had doubled.
The 2017 ralliers were motivated to protest partly because of a bill introduced by Utah representative Jason Chaffetz called the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act. If passed, it would lead to the sale of more than 3 million acres of public land in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Judging from the abundance of "Smokey's Friends Need Public Lands" and "Keep America Great" signs in Helena, there were many people who thought that was an intensely bad idea. Inside the red and gold rotunda of the capitol — underneath paintings of an explorer, a Native American chief, a prospector, and a cowboy — people in flannel, trucker hats, camouflage, and Patagonia congregated to talk about how great it is to go outside. “Every one of us owns these public lands,” Governor Steve Bullock yelled to the crowd. “And the beauty is, we don’t need permission to go on them, do we? These lands are our heritage. These lands are our birthright.”
Of course, that only holds true if federal lands aren't sold. And since transferring public lands to the states — where they'll most likely just be auctioned off anyway — is part of the national Republican platform at a time when the GOP is in charge across the country, their safety isn't certain. Then again, conservation is an issue that melds environmentalism with nostalgia for how things once were; it can still transcend ideological sorting, making the average Americans supporting it all the more powerful. If a conservative lawmaker sees a protest filled with progressives, it won't do much to put the fear of God in them concerning their future career prospects. But overwhelming bipartisan opposition, or at least the censure of friends? That's like having Zombie Teddy Roosevelt wake you up in the middle of the night riding a grizzly bear and threatening to take your job away.
In this issue — along with every other policy matter inspiring protests in 2017 — building the broadest possible coalition is essential if activists want the thing they're protecting to exist four years from now. And although the conservation movement has been ideologically diverse forever, now advocates want to also make sure it's generationally and ethnically diverse as their aims get bolder.
Three days after the rally in Montana, and more than 1,100 miles away, as hundreds more conservationists gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Chaffetz withdrew the legislation that had everyone so incensed in the first place, announcing in an Instagram post that "groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message." Or as Jason Amaro, who runs the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers southwest chapter, says of hunters, "We're a voice that gets taken for granted by the GOP. They think we're all about the gun issue, and that's wrong. The days of supporting the party blindly are gone." According to the latest Conservation in the West poll, majorities of western Republicans and Democrats support keeping public lands with the feds.
We’re a voice that gets taken for granted by the GOP. They think we’re all about the gun issue, and that’s wrong. The days of supporting the party blindly are gone.
"In this divisive political time," Dave Chadwick at the Montana Wildlife Federation says, "conservation is a positive issue. There's not a lot that unites people right now. Conservation is one of those issues."
This issue, however, is not new, and it has changed along with the very landscape it concerns, morphed by a growing country and an increasingly volatile climate. The Chaffetz bill was first introduced in 2011, and Western states have been holding rallies to express their worries about public lands in response to possible state and federal action for years. As of 2017, nearly half of the land in Western states is owned by the federal government. Plenty of elected officials and citizens alike have tried for decades to decrease federal control, or at least the number of regulations that apply to public land, while other officials and citizens have argued for the opposite.
The past few months have been clarifying, however. Threats to the conservation movement that once seemed far away now seem urgent and inescapable as the Trump administration quickly implements policy without thinking of the details or the fallout. The federal government has already sold off millions of acres of land in the past few decades. Where will people go if even more are eradicated in the next four years, advocates wonder? "Once they're sold," Amaro says, "they're sold. There's no going back. It's not like defunding something."
That doesn't mean that there isn't support for the effort to transfer public lands to states or sell them off, though; the opposition to federal lands' existence is as old as the movement to protect them. Public lands' detractors have received quite a bit of press in recent years — especially if they have the last name Bundy. The armed, weeks-long standoffs on a ranch in rural Nevada and a national wildlife refuge in Oregon — where Cliven Bundy and his sons received massive attention for their beefs with the Bureau of Land Management — fit the narrative of Western libertarianism and federal government wariness that has framed the fight against public lands. If you don't trust the federal government and are surrounded by land owned by it, it might be hard to get the fuzzy wuzzies from public forests.
Most of the legislation concerning public lands, often pushed by organizations like the American Lands Council, tries to capture this distrust, pushing for federal lands to be transferred to "the states" — a minor deity of the modern conservative ethos. But because cash-strapped or budget-minded states probably wouldn't have the funds to take care of said land, they’d likely be forced to make it much more expensive for the public to use or sell it themselves. After the land is sold, the public has no input in what happens to it, even if its resources are immediately extracted en masse or barred from use completely. As The Guardian pointed out in January, selling off tourism and timber-happy public lands will probably just turn into a money pit that "provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens."
Garrett VeneKlasen at the New Mexico Wildlife Federation emceed the rally in Santa Fe last week and also went up to the Malheur National Wildlife refuge during the standoff last year to tell the "lunatic fringe of radical extremists" to "get the hell off my land."
“We’re talking about the federal government as if it were some monster out there, when it’s us," VeneKlasen told reporters. "It’s we the people. When did we get to this point where we think of it like that?” He also said, “I have guns, I have an arsenal of guns, but you don’t see me go waving them all around. That’s crazy and it’s not solving anything.”
Fast-forward a year and a presidential administration. What's next? Many groups just want to keep letting the public know what's at risk. There's another old Chaffetz bill advocates are keeping their eye on, which would transfer all law-enforcement power on public lands from federal officials to local sheriffs. Giving local law enforcement more power was on the Malheur occupiers' wish list, and the change would probably make it harder to respond to standoffs in the future. The Utah representative also recently visited the White House to discuss public lands issues, and several state legislators have also been introducing legislation dealing with land transfers. But mostly, "there's a lot of waiting," says Brad Brooks, who works at the Wilderness Society's office in Idaho. "We don't know what's going to be introduced."
Which leads to the other important step: civic engagement 101. "People think that rallies are the solution to activism," VeneKlasen says. "It's step one." Convincing all the people at these rallies to call their elected officials and go to town halls to talk about conservation is on all these groups' to-do lists. In Montana, advocates are watching Ryan Zinke, their current representative and likely new secretary of the interior, making sure he follows through on his pro–public lands past, and getting ready to make sure his replacement in Congress feels the same. Getting attention further east is important too, making clear that this issue might have an outsize influence in the West, but should matter nationally. If anything, those east of the Mississippi should perhaps feel even more protective of their public lands since they're so rare.
People think that rallies are the solution to activism. It’s step one.
And despite the general policy malaise felt by progressives of both the modern and Teddy Roosevelt persuasion, a few conservation advocates are even feeling a tad sunny right now. "I'm a guy who works for a wilderness group in one of the reddest states in the country," Brooks says. "I'm an eternal optimist." Amaro and VeneKlasen were excited after the rally because of how diverse and young it was — breaking away from the tradition of the typically crusty white conservationist in flannel. "We were brown, and we were young," VeneKlasen says. "I was a minority as an old fart." Amaro, a Hispanic first-generation American, says that Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has tried hard to reach out to new people to get involved, heading to fiestas and churches or events that might attract foodies looking for some delicious and extra-paleo fish to fry. VeneKlasen thinks that the renewed interest in public lands nationally might have been spurred by the fight at Standing Rock. The pipeline protest highlighted how young people of color will likely be some of the most important voices in this battle going forward, even as people of color still face plenty of barriers to even accessing the outdoors.
Then there are the corporate interests. In plenty of policy battles across the country, from transgender bathroom access to religious freedom bills, businesses have been some of the most powerful voices when it comes to convincing legislators to rethink stances. Outdoor recreation or clothing companies often depend upon tourism from public lands for profit. Many of them have stood with advocates. In Utah, where the newly designated Bears Ears national monument might be in peril of being demoted, Patagonia has been making a fuss.
For now, victory feels sweet, if brief. Hilary Hutcheson, host of Trout TV, spoke at the rally in Montana, noting that it's easy to take these lands for granted when you spend time on them every day — but that it's equally easy to watch them slip away before your kids get to use them if you don't keep watch. "I liked the symbolism of the round space of the rotunda as a roundtable," she said later. "Everyone there has different opinions about the right way forward with most political issues, but on this issue, we're all together."