September 23, 2020
One thing that makes America so unique is its public lands. America’s public lands consist of land held by either Federal or State governments. Our public lands are our national parks and monuments, forests, wildlife refuges, conservation areas, wildernesses, historic sites, memorials, battlefields, recreation areas, rivers, sea and lakeshores, trails, and public universities. In the United States, public lands account for 25% to 75% of the land base across varying states. In Montana, public lands account for 29% of the total land base. These lands are ours to enjoy, and in Montana, quiet enjoyment of public lands is a part of everyday life.
Montana’s 30 million acres of public lands have been preserved and celebrated on Public Lands Day since it was established in 1994. Held on the fourth Saturday in September, Public Lands Day was established to honor the connection between people and the green spaces in their communities, inspire environmental stewardship, and encourage the use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits. It’s also the most extensive single-day volunteer effort in the United States, with over 170,000 Americans pitching in and improving parks every year.
In Montana, the day is historically celebrated with traditional Native American games, painting and cleaning at various state parks, tree plantings, fence removal, trash pick-ups, invasive plant removal, bird or bat house construction, trail maintenance, and more. Many Montanans celebrate the day on their own by getting outside and taking advantage of “fee-free” day at the gates of national and state parks.
However, for Montanans, Public Lands Day is every day. Montanans are surrounded and fueled by public lands. They are a part of every Montanan’s DNA with two of the country’s most-visited and cherished national parks - Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park- residing in the state. The economy relies on public lands to generate $7 billion per year and is responsible for 70,000 direct jobs. Almost all Montanans carry fond memories of time spent in Montana’s public lands since they were young.
Before pioneers and cattle drivers reached the State of Montana, the concept of private property didn’t exist. All lands belonged to Native American Tribes and communities. Then, when Anglo-Saxon populations began to reside in Montana, private property became an established idea closely tied to capitalism. With that, the concept of public lands was born. Since then, rights to Montana’s public lands have been fiercely championed and advocated for, shaping public lands laws on the federal level.
One such example is the Montana Stream Access Act and the landmark Supreme Court decision on recreational river access defining public interest versus private property owners’ interest. This act solidified the state’s commitment to public land access a decade before establishing Public Lands Day. The final ruling deemed the public may use rivers or streams with recreation capability for activities such as fishing and floating, regardless of whether the river is navigable or who the streambed property owner is. Today, the issue is still contented with tension on some of Montana’s rivers between anglers and private landowners.
In 2019, the Montana Legislature passed a bill creating a new program to secure access to public land called the Public Access to Lands Act. The bill allows Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to negotiate agreements with private landowners for the public to access otherwise inaccessible public lands. This bill serves as one that offers protection and continues to expand public access to private lands. It also provides flexibility for landowners interested in providing public access, but do not find existing programs to fit their needs.
For a full timeline of the recreational use of Montana’s state public lands and corresponding acts and laws, head over to PLWA’s complete history.
Whether you live in the great state of Montana or outside of it, America’s public lands are to be cherished, shared and enjoyed. After all, they belong to us all.
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