Public lands rally draws big crowd

More than 2,000 gathered at the Capitol for a public lands rally on Saturday. Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman

Saturday’s public lands rally at the Capitol was sponsored by Idahoans for Public Lands, and featured speakers who spanned political spectrum, including Native Americans, motorized users, hunters and fishers, hikers and bikers — all of whom want to continue to keep public land in public ownership. Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman

BOISE — There were hunters and hippies, dirt bikers and mountain bikers, rafters and ranchers. More than 2,000 turned out Saturday in Boise for a massive public lands rally on the steps of the Capitol, holding signs attached to fishing poles and raft paddles.

Many of the signs were to the point: “Keep your hands off our public lands.” Others were more biting, like the signs carried by several dog owners who asserted that their Labrador retrievers were smarter than the Idaho congressman of the same name. One man held a sign reading: “I see power.”

The rally’s aim was to unify and organize disparate groups who favor the preservation of federal lands but have been divided by arguments about how such lands ought to be managed. The group who organized it is called Idahoans for Public Lands.

“As a group of public land users in this audience, we have a diverse background, a background in all different sorts of public land use,” said Jimmy Hallyburton, a mountain biker who emceed the event. “I think today is a credible example of what can happen and what power we can create when Idahoans come together.”

“Hell, yeah,” the crowd chanted in reply.

Martin Hackworth is executive director of, formerly known as the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that lobbies for greater motorized access on federal lands. Many of the people he has fought with about that issue — groups that favor restricting motorized use — stood next to him Saturday.

“We all have a say-so regarding public land,” he said. “… One of the things that happens in a democracy is you don’t get 100 percent of everything you want. You sit down and hammer out a deal. I’m here to support these people because, on this issue, we all see things the same way.”

Hackworth’s position hasn’t changed, and neither have his opponents’. But with a growing sense that public lands are in danger, he said what was most important was for all of them to have a seat at the table.

“Public land is our birthright,” he said in an interview. “All of us are stakeholders in public land, and that’s a great part of this country. It’s unique. If you go to Europe, they don’t have public lands like there is in the United States. They hold their (dirt bike) races in rock quarries.”

And Hackworth said transferring public lands to states is “the first step toward our not owning these resources as a society.”

“The reason for that is I lose my seat as a stakeholder,” he said. “The federal government has recreation as a mandate. It’s part of what you have to do with public land. States have no such mandate.”

And Hackworth said if federal lands are transferred to states, it’s only a matter of time before state officials have to sell them off to the highest bidder.

“Every state has a mandated balanced budget,” he said. “So you’re a single forest fire, a single well-funded lawsuit away from having to make a choice about whether you’re going to close a school or sell off some public land.”

Policymakers will face that choice all the time, he said.

“It will be so tempting,” agreed Margaret Fuller.

Fuller is the author of several trail guides and books about Idaho outdoor recreation, including the first comprehensive guide to hiking trails in the Sawtooth and White Clouds ranges. She started hiking and backpacking in the central Idaho mountains in 1957. Her life has centered around public lands, she said, and she isn’t ready to give up on them now.

Luke Nelson travelled from Pocatello to speak at the event.

A professional trail runner, he’s used to traveling long distances. Very long distances. He came in third in his first marathon, which he ran because he lost a bet, with no prior training. His personal record is a 155-mile run.

“Public lands are where I do my work. It’s where I practice my craft,” he said in an interview.

Nelson said he would rather be spending his Saturday as he spends most of his days, running through trails in public lands throughout the state. But Nelson has children, and he said he came to speak at the rally because he wants his children to have the same opportunities that he did.

“That’s what makes America what it is: All of us own this land, and it needs to stay that way,” he said. “(If federal lands are transferred) the interest of the public will not be put first. The interests of extraction will be put first.”

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.