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A raucous crowd of 2,000 people packed Montana’s state capitol building last month in Helena to fight for upkeep and expansion of public lands in a state powered by $7 billion a year in outdoors activity.

In Minnesota, a broad coalition of conservation leaders will stage a similar rally Thursday in St. Paul, hoping for a turnout of at least hundreds of outdoors enthusiasts of all kinds. They want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) against mining, stamp out proposals for “no net gain” of public land, safeguard lake access and perpetuate funding for wild places.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas and think everything is going to be OK,” said Land Tawney, president and chief executive of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a national public lands advocacy group that has attracted 30,000 members in eight years.

As the rally’s keynote speaker in the Capitol rotunda at 3 p.m., Tawney said he will celebrate Minnesota’s 12 million acres of public land and urge everyday stewards of those natural areas to “double down” on carrying the legacy forward.

“Try to grow that pot a little bit … build on the momentum,” Tawney said in a phone interview from his office in Missoula, Mont. “The issue of public lands and public waters is where we can all coalesce.”

Tawney said he would be thrilled if half the number of people who rallied in Montana on Aldo Leopold’s birthday show up for Thursday’s event in St. Paul. Erik Jensen, who heads the Minnesota chapter of Backwoods Hunters & Anglers, said he is hoping to double or triple last year’s turnout of under 200 attendees.

Organizers are recruiting from core hunting and fishing groups in addition to a variety of outdoors recreation groups — bird watchers, nature photographers, hikers, campers, climbers, mountain bikers, kayakers, canoeists and others.

“We’ve been intentionally reaching out,” Jensen said. “Last year it was a lot of blaze orange and camo.”

A foreign mining conglomerate wants to dig for copper and other metals on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters, a move that would put the pristine, 1 million-acre wilderness at risk for toxic runoff.

Jensen said the BWCA pollution threat will be emphasized Thursday, including at private meetings between citizens and legislators. But opposition to the proposed Twin Metals mine won’t be the rally’s centerpiece, he said.

“It’s beyond politics,” said Spencer Shaver, conservation policy director at Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, one of a dozen cosponsors of the rally. “We’re really fighting this year to get people involved.

“The rally is for people who love these places and want to see them protected,” he said.

Michael Leighton of Excelsior and his son, Anders, 11, attended the Capitol Rally for Public Lands in 2018.
Michael Leighton of Excelsior and his son, Anders, 11, attended the Capitol Rally for Public Lands in 2018.

DENNIS ANDERSON • Star Tribune

Pheasants Forever President Howard Vincent and David Brakhage of Ducks Unlimited will be among the speakers. State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, also will address the crowd.

State voters in 2008 updated the Minnesota Constitution by passing the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. It triggered a slight increase in the state sales tax that funds initiatives to protect water and benefit wetlands, prairies and forests. The money also goes to enhance fish and wildlife habitat.

Jensen said the public lands coalition wants to protect the income stream from being raided by legislators for inappropriate causes. The money puts Minnesota in the rare position of adding to public lands at a time when other states are losing places where citizens are free to hunt, fish or enjoy other forms of outdoor recreation.

Widening the base of conservationists who defend the Legacy Amendment will help influence legislators to keep doing the right thing, Jensen said.

“That’s part of our bag of issues that we are watching,” he said.

Preventing the sell-off of Minnesota’s vast collection of publicly accessible school trust lands and fighting against subtle attempts to narrow public access to state waters are two other concerns the group will raise at the rally.

“We want to get a Legislature that is pro-public lands,” Jensen said.

Tawney will use his visit to Minnesota to meet informally in taproom social hours with existing and prospective public lands supporters. Wednesday night’s pint session will be at Fulton Brewing in Minneapolis. Immediately following Thursday’s rally, backers of the lands movement will meet at Lake Monster Brewing in St. Paul.