Around 100 Ravalli County citizens and conservation group members gathered at Hamilton Middle School Saturday morning to protest what they called an effort to privatize public lands.
Karen Budd-Falen, a controversial land-use attorney leading President Donald Trump's shortlist for Bureau of Land Management director, was scheduled to speak later Saturday in Hamilton to present her guidelines on land-use planning to Ravalli County residents.
The Wyoming-based Budd-Falen previously represented rancher Cliven Bundy, known for leading an armed takeover and occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016.
Blaze-orange vests and cardboard signs adorned with Theodore Roosevelt, who championed the establishment of public lands, lined the sidewalk up to the middle school where Budd-Falen was scheduled to speak.
The protests were organized in part by the Montana Wildlife Federation. Bill Geer, MWF president, said Budd-Falen demonizes federal bureaucracy, but said the bureaucracy actually helps public land users.
"Bureaucracy helps to protect public land because it makes it difficult for anyone to take it away," Geer said. "We're all in it together, and there are already mechanisms that exist for public to be involved in management decisions."
Budd-Falen, who once wrote a land-use plan for a New Mexico county stating that “federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty and happiness" of the county's residents, was invited by state Rep. Theresa Manzella R-Hamilton.
Manzella described Budd-Fallen as a "lawyer deeply seasoned in natural resource law and a fierce fighter of property rights due to be appointed as BLM director."
The former president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Skip Kowalski, said putting public lands under state control inevitably leads to the sale and privatization of public lands.
"In a financial crisis like the one our state is in right now, the Legislature would be incentivized to sell off this little piece here or this little piece here," Kowalski said. "Resource management is pretty darn tough, meeting the needs of people on the right and the left, and it's not perfect, but federal management is better than some county commissioners making decisions."
Manzella originally wanted Budd-Fallen to make a four-hour presentation to the Ravalli County Commissioners on ways to "add teeth" to the Bitteroot Valley Natural Resource Use plan adopted in 2012.
But the commissioners backed off after about a dozen residents objected.
This story will be updated.