Montana State Capitol File

A statue of Thomas Francis Meagher, former governor of the Montana Territory, greets visitors in front of the Montana Capitol at sunrise on Feb. 10 in Helena.

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Speakers at Montana’s fourth consecutive Rally for Public Lands urged a 600-person virtual crowd to defend outdoor spaces from exploitation and privatization this legislative session.

“The road from greed to bad policy is short and it is straight,” said speaker Andrew Posewitz, a sportsman and hunting ethics advocate. “If you want to know what the beginning of the end looks like, you only need to look at what is occurring in the current Legislature in Helena.”

Posewitz warned of bills serving well-funded private interests. He urged rally-goers to call or email state representatives, share opinions on bills, show up at hearings and “find hearts and minds to change.”

“The pandemic is a threat that understandably keeps many of us at home, but it’s also allowed us to sign up and testify without having to come to Helena,” Posewitz said. “We must take advantage of this opportunity to have our voices heard and push back.”

Rachel Schmidt, a former director of the Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, was the event’s emcee. She encouraged listeners to contact state lawmakers and join a vehicle parade around the Capitol in Helena to support public lands.

“These are our shared lands, and it’s our responsibility to take care of them,” Schmidt said.

Francine Spang-Willis and Conrad Anker also spoke at Tuesday’s rally. Spang-Willis is a scholar, historian and member of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation board of directors. Anker is a world-famous climber and author.

Spang-Willis, who is of Cheyenne, Pawnee and settler descent, said the public has an obligation to steward the land for future generations.

Fulfilling this obligation starts with acknowledging Indigenous people and their traditional homelands, but it doesn’t end there, Spang-Willis said. In-depth discussions about what inclusion means in organizations, structures and policies are also needed.

“By learning about the land’s layered history, we can come to a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made for public lands to exist and the significance they play for so many diverse people and other biodiversity” she said.

Anker said Montanans face a raft of bills seeking to remove access to public lands and the wildlife that inhabit them. He encouraged rally-goers to reach out into their circle of influence and beyond their echo zones.

“We have an obligation and responsibility to the land, the inhabitants of the land, the flora and fauna and to future generations,” Anker said.

Tuesday’s rally was organized by the Montana Wilderness Association, Wild Montana Action Fund, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Wildlife Federation, Forward Montana, MontPIRG, Montana Audubon, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Business for Montana Outdoors, and the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance.

Past rallies have drawn large crowds to the state Capitol, but organizers opted to host an online rally this time around. They called on lawmakers to vote against House bills 670, 683, 697, 701 and 707.

These bills “would strip millions of dollars from accounts intended to enhance wildlife habitat, support public access, protect working farms and ranches and boost hunting and fishing opportunities,” organizers said in a news release.

Later on Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee tabled HB 697, which would have directed funds from Habitat Montana, the state’s main habitat conservation program, toward compensating landowners for crop damage by wildlife.

Noah Marion, state policy director for the Montana Wilderness Association, thanked the bipartisan group of legislators who voted to table the bill.

HB 697 “would have raided Habitat Montana, the state’s premier access and habitat conservation program, crippling public access and seriously jeopardizing the outdoor opportunities that are the backbone of our economy and outdoor way of life,” Marion said.

“Public lands are at the center of our Montana way of life and became even more important during the pandemic,” said Whitney Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters. “But now, out of touch lawmakers are trying to take money away from our state parks, trails and public access programs and Montanans aren’t going to have it.”

At Tuesday’s rally, Posewitz said some bills targeting public lands have been amended or tabled, but “there’s nothing to prevent them from coming back.”

“The pandemic is a threat that understandably keeps many of us at home, but it also allowed us to sign up and testify without having to come to Helena,” he said. “We must take advantage of this opportunity to have our voices heard and push back.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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