Once again, the Rally for Public Lands at the State Capitol was proof that our public lands and outdoor way of life bind us. The numbers bear it out: 89% of Montanans visit public lands every year; 64% hunt or fish; 79% consider themselves conservationists; and 89% say public lands positively impact our overall quality of life. These values are the common ground on which we build strong families and pass on the traditions that shape us.
But some state lawmakers don’t seem to share these values.
These lawmakers are attacking our outdoor way of life. This legislature, they’ve introduced bills to pave the way to transfer public lands out of public hands (House Bill 320). They’ve proudly gone after public access (Senate Bills 354 and 115) and tried to strip millions from key public lands projects (House Bills 670, 683, 701, and 707). They’ve tried to build roads through national parks (House Bill 418), overturn a citizen initiative to privatize wildlife held in public trust (Senate Bill 143), and allow motorized vehicles on non-motorized trails (House Bill 281).
By now, the statistics showing the importance of public lands are well known: our public lands support $7.1 billion in consumer spending every year. 5.1% of Montana’s gross domestic product and 10% of Montana jobs are directly linked to our outdoor economy. 96% of Montanan believe outdoor recreation is central to our economic success, and 90% believe that funding public land protection, water, and wildlife should be a priority.
And the importance of public lands runs far deeper than the numbers.
Montana’s land, water, and wildlife are community resources with long and layered histories that deserve protection and respect. Indigenous traditions and cultural practices reaching back thousands of years are inextricably tied to today’s public lands - the ancestral homelands of numerous Indigenous peoples - and are deeply important to this day. Most of us have our own deeply felt connections to public lands, whether we hunt and fish, hike and camp, climb and ski, or ride and run.
These shared connections to public lands help us build a sense of community and belonging no matter where we come from. As our connection to the land grows, so does our connection to each other and our obligation to be good stewards of the places we love.
As with so many things, the true joy of public lands comes from sharing them with the people we love. And as we enjoy sharing the benefits of public lands - the freedom to roam, to relax, to feed our families, to connect with nature and each other - we need to share the responsibility of protecting them.
That entails thanking lawmakers when they support good public land policy and holding them accountable when they don’t. By reviewing the bills noted above, it is clear that there are specific and catastrophic attacks being leveled against the Montana way of life and we all must help defend it, or we could well lose important parts of our way of life.
Each of us has the power to convert our passion into policy and stop these attacks on our public lands.
Some things are simple, like contacting your lawmakers and asking that they represent your interests by fighting to protect public access, support funding, and defend the outdoor way of life you love. Some are more involved, like signing up to testify, virtually or in person, about a particular bill (learn more and sign up at https://leg.mt.gov/public-testimony/). Some are tougher still, like having conversations with friends and family about why protecting public lands is so important.
Perhaps the hardest and most important thing of all is remembering to never give up. Defending our public lands from reckless attacks isn’t easy, but it’s worth it for ourselves, for future generations, and for the traditions and outdoor way of life that bring us all together. Montana’s lawmakers would do well to remember that.
Conrad Anker is a world-famous climber and mountaineer, Rachel Schmidt is the Former Director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, Francine Spang-Willis is a board member of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation, Andrew Posewitz is a sportsman and hunting ethics advocate. They spoke at the Rally for Public Lands on April 6.