Open-toed sandals and colorful fleece jackets mixed with cowboy boots and camouflage vests. Subarus squeezed in next to towering pickup trucks. Bright orange baseball caps from the National Outdoor Leadership School bobbed in the crowd alongside caps touting the wearer’s military service.
Though the question of federal land management is becoming increasingly partisan, the several hundred people who gathered for a rally on Saturday to protect access to public lands represented a cross-section of Wyomingites.
“There can’t be anything more American than our public lands,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney told the crowd gathered at the Fort Caspar campground in Casper.
Attendees heard speeches, signed a poster to present to legislators and ate burgers and nachos from two food trucks at the event. Local musician Chad Lore led the crowd in a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Craig Hines and his mother, Ann, both of Casper, said they had enjoyed using public land across Wyoming.
“I’m just an out-and-about sort of guy,” Craig said. “I’ve hunted, I’ve fished, I’ve done some cowboying and I’ve used, and not abused, public land.”
When the crowd raised their fists and broke out in a chant of “public lands,” Ann, a bird watcher, raised her cane and joined in.
“I’ve been all over the state and I don’t want to lose it,” she explained.
Sending a message
NOLS director John Gans, who emceed the event, said the turnout was impressive given that there was no pending legislation to muster against. Instead the rally was meant to demonstrate public opposition to turning over federal land to state control ahead of the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee meeting on Wednesday.
The committee will discuss an amendment to the state constitution meant to guarantee that the public would not lose recreational access if the state acquires new public lands. But the constitution currently bars the state from taking over federal land and rally organizers believe the amendment is intended to assuage the public’s fear without offering meaningful protections.
Gans praised, but did not name, candidates at the rally who were running for state office in Tuesday’s elections.
Keeping “public lands in public hands” has become one of the most popular platform points for Democrats running in bright-red Wyoming: U.S. House candidate Ryan Greene, State House District 56 candidate Dan Neal and House District 58 candidate Michael McDaniel.
(Neal’s Republican opponent, Jerry Obermueller, said he attended the start of the rally before leaving to canvass.)
The reticence to name the mostly Democratic candidates in attendance may stem from the desire to keep access to public lands a bipartisan issue.
Trevor Herrman, treasurer of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the issue should not break down along traditional political lines.
“I’m a registered Republican and I don’t see it that way,” Herrman said. “The folks who want to privatize it? It’s greed, plain and simple.”
But, increasingly, even those Republican politicians in the state who are not actively supporting legislation to take control of federal land are unwilling to rule out such a move. Instead, they emphasize the importance of maintaining recreational access to public land no matter who owns it.
Speakers at the rally, however, said the state would simply never be capable of protecting access to public land.
In his keynote speech, Chris Madson said only the federal government is powerful enough to both fund the upkeep of massive tracts of public land and ward off corporate interests that want to purchase or exploit the land.
“Neither history nor recent experience supports the notion that these lands would better serve America if they were in state ownership or private hands,” said Madson, former editor of the state Department of Game and Fish’s Wyoming Wildlife magazine.
“The public domain is why I came to Wyoming. It’s why I stay,” Madson said. “It is my refuge, my comfort, my hope for the future. And by God I will not give it up!”
Madson slammed his fist on the lectern and left the stage to a standing ovation.
A new sense of urgency
Most of the speakers focused on how much Wyomingites enjoyed using public land. That was a sentiment with universal support among those in the audience.
“I just enjoy the peacefulness,” Greg Kearns said of his time camping and hiking on public land. Kearns said he especially appreciates how close Muddy Mountain, operated by the Bureau of Land Management, is to Casper.
“Wyoming is really a great place to live because of the open spaces,” Kearns said. “I’m completely supportive of keeping local land in public hands.”
But the intensity with which Madson advocated for a proposition most Wyomingites already agree with underscores the fear that supporters of federal land divestiture may be winning.
Tawney, of Backcounty Hunters and Anglers, said that while efforts to protect public land have always faced pushback, the current opposition is much stronger.
Advocates of state control of public land offer several justifications. These include the arguments that federal agencies in Washington, D.C., are unable to appropriately respond to local needs and that the federal government receives royalties from mining that would otherwise go to the state.
But critics see the bid for state control as the latest front in an ongoing battle waged by wealthy libertarian business owners who see regulations — such as those controlling commercial access to public land — as impediments to both liberty and their own financial interests.
“The thing that’s different today is that there are billionaires behind it, they’re well organized and they’re in it for the long haul,” Tawney said. “If we lose once we never get it back.”
Herrman, BHA’s Wyoming treasurer, said the days of recreational access to public land in Wyoming were numbered.
“Money always wins,” he said. “But if I can delay it 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, I will.”
“I’m standing here to fight for it.”