by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck
About 400 protestors gathered for the Stand for Our Land rally Friday at the Routt County Courthouse in response to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s visit to Steamboat Springs. 
Eleanor C. Hasenbeck

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In conjunction with U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s visit to Steamboat Springs, about 400 people gathered in protest on the Routt County Courthouse lawn Friday evening in downtown Steamboat Springs.

The Stand for Our Land rally was organized by opponents of Bernhardt’s policies as Interior Secretary as he spoke at the Steamboat Institute’s Freedom Conference earlier in the day.

A similar rally was organized last year when then-Secretary Ryan Zinke attended the same conference. Last year’s protest brought a crowd of about 1,400 to Steamboat.

Friday’s crowd waved protest signs as the occasional car passing by on U.S. Highway 40 honked in a show of support.

Hayden resident Megan Walker said she came to the rally because her husband and her son were camping on public land in Moffat County, and either through raft trips, camping or mountain biking, most of her friends were spending time on public land Friday night.

“So I wanted to come out and be a presence and a voice to show support and say, ‘this is important,’” she said.

Her friend Izzy Sucha, of Steamboat, said she came out because she was raised on public lands and it’s still where her favorite activities take place.

“I need them to be around for me and the kids I teach. They’re some of our most valuable resources,” Sucha said.

“And it’s important to have land that everybody has access to,” Walker added.

In the hour-long event, speakers shared reasons why they disapprove of Bernhardt, the Interior’s recent public lands policies and why they care about public lands. At their feet, 15 children sat listening in front of the crowd of mostly adults holding signs and wearing “Stand for Our Land” T-shirts.

“The land, the land is here, and it’s here in all of you,” organizer Cody Perry said. “It’s here for those experiences that you’ve shared with your friends, that you’re passing down to your children and for a future that we want to see. For the mountain biking trails, for the ski trails, for all the wildlife — wildlife that flies and walks and swims. Endangered species that we want to see stick around.

“I mean, the list goes on and on, right?” Perry asked. “There’s a lot to be done. Last year, apparently, they must have not got the message.”

Emi Cooper, a Steamboat Springs High School student who has been leading weekly climate strikes every Friday on the courthouse lawn, was the first to speak.

“This place is so special,” she said. “It is a community where we can ski all winter and camp in those same mountains all summer. Watching a sunset over these hills has instilled a strong love of these places. Possibly Secretary Bernhardt has never had this experience. He views the earth as a commodity, something to be extracted for financial gain.

“The secretary has worked as a legal advisor for timber and mining companies and as a lobbyist for oil and gas companies, so how can we trust this secretary to protect our public lands?” Cooper asked the crowd. “I don’t believe we can. ”

She added that public lands are “critical in the fight against climate change” in conserving biodiversity, acting as a buffer from natural disasters and absorbing greenhouse gases.

Both Cooper and the speaker that followed her, Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, urged the audience to vote.

Corrigan opened with the list of items he’d like to talk to Bernhardt about.

“There may be some of you that came here today to see Secretary Bernhardt,” Corrigan told the audience. “I’ve got to tell you, you’re in the wrong place, or you don’t have enough money, and it’s too bad.”

Corrigan said Bernhardt was invited to speak at the rally, just as Zinke was last year.

Corrigan said that he’d like to ask Bernhardt why it was a good idea to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, to appoint William Perry Pendley as acting head the Bureau of Land Management — who Corrigan said “is an avowed proponent of the transfer of public lands to private interest”— as well as the decision “to lease hundreds of acres here in Routt County for oil and gas leasing within critical sage grouse habitat” and to “rollback protections for the Endangered Species Act.”

Steamboat resident Kent Vertrees took the stage to share how public lands impacted his livelihood, joking that without public lands, he’d have to get a real job. Vertrees teaches canyon and river experiential classes at Colorado Mountain College and operates the backcountry skiing company Steamboat Powdercats.

“I’m not anti-oil and gas. I’m not anti-extraction, but I am for smart and reasonable use,” he said. “I drive a car. I power my house. I eat food. I love steaks, and they’re grown on public lands. This stuff is very important, but I see a change that’s happening right now, and I’m worried about our public lands.”

Issac Madson spoke about his and his family’s experiences as members of the Navajo tribe in Utah and Colorado. He described gerrymandering in San Juan County, Utah, and discrimination his brother faced that drove him to move away from Blanding, Utah, as, 35 miles away, the acreage of Bears Ears National Monument was reduced.

“What I want to say is, please, keep fighting,” he said.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.comor follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.