It became clear around 11 am that the Helena Capitol building was far too small for all the demonstrators who showed up.
Every balcony in the rotunda was full. People spilled out of the room and into the hallways. When we chanted, the building shook.
We were there on a cold January day to protest various attempts by the federal government to sell public lands to private companies and individuals.
One bill on the immediate horizon was HR621, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017. The bill aimed to sell 3 million acres of this land across 10 different Western states, including Montana, to the highest bidder. The funds generated would go toward reducing the federal debt. But once sold, the public would lose access to these lands for hiking, camping, and hunting.
It’s a bill that had been introduced many times in Congress. Under President Obama, it signified little more than a symbolic gesture. But this year, with Donald Trump at the helm of a deep-red Congress, it seemed suddenly like a very real possibility.
This hit home for me because in Montana, losing these lands threatens not only our tourism and recreation economy but our entire way of life. So the Montana Wilderness Association and other local grassroots organization decided to do something about it. We started organizing a rally last year, around the time of the election. At the time, I was worried about turnout — even though public lands are an important issue to Montanans, we weren’t sure if people would care enough to come out and protest. We made calls. We sent out emails. We set an ambitious goal of 400 attendees but were skeptical we would hit it.
But as the rally drew closer, we felt momentum building. The Women’s March drew 10,000 people to the streets of Helena, the largest march in Montana’s history. Clearly people were motivated to take action. We started to think that our gathering might be a little larger than we had anticipated. But we didn’t realize just how many would show up: 1,000 people, from all over the state.
I’m a longtime activist of progressive issues. I’ve organized many protests and political events in the past few years. But I haven’t seen this kind of activism before. And I attribute it to the election of Trump.
Things are bad right now for many progressive causes. But the flip side is that people are mobilizing on a scale I haven’t seen before. There have been several big stories, from the airport protests against Trump’s travel ban to the town hall protests against repealing and replacing Obamacare, that show how effective protest can be in pushing back against bad policies.
Here’s my story of how a rally I helped organize stopped our government from selling off our precious national land. It’s a rare moment of hope in this time when it feels like politics is dark and overwhelming. And it shows how change can happen from the ground up.
Public lands are incredibly important to Montanans
I grew up in Unionville, just south of Helena, the capital of Montana. I was a total outdoors kid, inspired by my parents to spend as much time outside as possible. We hiked, went camping, and backpacked. Much of this happened in the Helena National Forest, federal lands right outside our front door.
I would spend my after-school hours playing in the national forest with a group of neighborhood kids. We would scale a set of large boulders, our favorite place to play, and pretend we were mountain lions or build forts out of the branches nearby. We spent hours wandering around, lost in our imaginations. When I think of my childhood, I think of the forest.
My love of this land eventually led me to a career focused on environmental conservation and politics. I got interested in politics in college when I joined a group of students protesting the US position in climate negotiations. I went to graduate school to study range management, to better understand how we can support both rural economies and the resources on which they depend.
My story — growing up steeped in the beauty of wild places — is not uncommon among Montanans. The people of this state have an intensely personal relationship with the land, and much of that exposure is through our public access to it. About 25 million acres of land in Montana are managed by the federal government, owned by all Americans. It’s one of several Western states, including Utah and Nevada, where millions of acres of wild and unique lands are publicly owned.
Montana’s public lands offer the opportunity to do everything from hiking and mountain biking to hunting and fishing — for free or for extremely low fees. Outdoor recreation on public lands is a big part of our state’s economy, second only to agriculture. Our national parks, national forests, and other public lands attract tourists from all over the world, adding jobs and revenue for our state. Some of those tourists come back to stay, starting and growing new businesses in tech and manufacturing. For Montanans, it’s not just about love of the land and our lifestyle. It’s also about our economy.
So threats to take this away from us have never been well received. Rep. Jason Chaffetz from Utah has introduced a bill to privatize millions of acres of federal land many times over the past several years. But they were never serious threats since Chaffetz never had the political support to actually pass these bills.
But after Trump was elected, the possibility of selling off our lands became an urgent threat. The president’s unclear stance on the issue, paired with the official GOP platform signaling partial support for this idea, was a dangerous combination. Moreover, the Republican-controlled House had just passed a bill that made it easier to begin the process of privatization.
With the real possibility of Montana’s land being sold off, people began to worry. It felt like a radical, fringe idea might actually come to fruition.
We spoke out against the bill — and it worked
It was about a week or two before our rally when we realized that there was real momentum behind our movement. We started getting calls and emails from people asking about how to get buses to and from the city, some from far-off locations. People volunteered to come down to the office and make calls to notify others about the rally. Folks we had never known before reached out to us, asking what they could do to help.
One woman took it upon herself to organize her own bus from rural Sanders County, roughly four hours from Helena. Sanders County is the home district of one of the leading proponents of federal lands transfer. She packed it full of 40 people, who each pitched in to pay the cost of transport.
The rally felt like the Platonic ideal of an organic grassroots movement. Individuals across Montana were moved by this issue, wanted to take action, and organized their own networks to come. People we had never heard of or seen before, who weren't on our outreach lists, showed up in droves — and organized their own efforts to get their people to come. A small group in Billings even organized their own small rally in support of ours for those who couldn’t travel the four hours to Helena.
The day of the demonstration, people crowded the rotunda and halls of the Capitol to make their voices heard. Looking into the crowd, you would be surprised that they were all fighting on the same side. People wearing hiking gear stood alongside ranchers in cowboy hats and hunters decked out in camo. People young and old chanted together: “Keep public land in public hands! Keep public land in public hands!”
Our chants reverberated throughout the building. It felt like a quake. We later heard that some of the legislators in the building told security to shut it down because we were being too loud, too disruptive, but it was our right to be there and make our voices heard. There was real anger in the air, but it was also full of positivity. People had united around this thing they collectively loved and wanted to protect.
Our rally wasn’t the only one geared toward this issue. Hundreds of people showed up for a protest in New Mexico against this very bill a few days later. Anglers, cyclists, skiers, and hunters stood united against the selling off of land so integral to the people of their community.
On Wednesday of that week, Chaffetz withdrew the bill. He posted a picture of himself decked out in hunting gear on Instagram. “I'm a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” the caption read.
I am withdrawing HR 621. I'm a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. The bill would have disposed of small parcels of lands Pres. Clinton identified as serving no public purpose but groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. The bill was originally introduced several years ago. I look forward to working with you. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow. #keepitpublic #tbt
I don’t want to give Chaffetz too much credit, but I felt like, in this moment, we had actually been heard. We felt all of our work transforming into actual, measurable results. We won.
Why this matters in the era of Trump
Our rally caused change — quickly and concretely. I have to stress just how rare this kind of moment is in the world of grassroots politics. Still, in a political climate that often makes people feel powerless against the whims of our government, our story serves as a useful example of how resistance can force our representatives in Washington to do what we want from thousands of miles away.
One important reason our particular rally worked was that it appealed to unlikely allies. The people who care about public lands cross so many different social and ideological groups. Everyone from traditional environmentalists to ranchers to hikers to snowmobilers to hunters to fishers is passionate about protecting these lands. Conservatives and liberals alike are invested financially and emotionally. You saw that in the diversity of people who showed up. Everyone was able to put their differences aside and rally.
There was also the wave of momentum coming off the Women’s March and other on-the-street political action since Trump took office. There’s a sense of nationwide, even global, resistance right now. Photos of protests are beamed every day onto our phones. We see hashtags and status updates on social media declaring political stances. It feels like everyone is getting involved, and that’s bringing people who never thought of themselves as particularly political into the fray alongside longtime activists like me.
But I think, sadly, that one of the biggest motivating factors is fear. Millions of people woke up the day after the election realizing that their health care could be taken away. Montanans faced the same disturbing reality for our precious public lands. We woke up on January 21 to a president flirting dangerously with radical right-wing ideology and a Congress empowering him to do it. People felt like they had to take building the future we wanted into their own hands.
I’m used to running up against apathy. It’s hard work trying to get people engaged. It’s hard to get people to see an issue beyond party talking points and as something that affects them not as a Democrat or a Republican but as human beings living on this one earth.
That has changed since the election. People are becoming engaged on a level I’ve never experienced before. There’s a true wave of desire for action. It’s remarkable to see.
And it has changed my work as someone active in politics before this election. January’s public lands rally resulted in concrete results — but that doesn’t happen often. Outside of organizing around elections, it’s uncommon to see the direct effects of your work. You plan rallies, make phone calls, do what you can to get the message out. You hope people are listening. You want to believe that change is happening in some intangible way, but it can be years before you know for sure.
But this time, it worked. Our public lands will remain ours for now. And that’s worth everything.
The fight continues, both for Montanans facing future efforts to privatize our land and for the nation at large battling to resist our government on climate change, immigration, women’s rights, health care, and more. But there are wins happening across the country, and they are adding up.
It just takes that right spark of energy, and the next thing you know, there’s a room full of people storming the local state building. It can happen.
Kayje Booker is state policy director at the Montana Wilderness Association, a grassroots conservation organization founded in 1958. When not working to defend public lands, she tries to spend as much time as possible enjoying them. Unless it's raining, in which case you can find her inside with a good book.