Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

This week, Patagonia Films premiered the documentary feature Public Trust at the 17th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. The film examines how private interests, especially extractive industries, are attempting to undermine America’s public lands legacy. The film focuses on three specific conflicts at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness, and northeastern Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The film prominently features Hal Herring, an award-winning journalist and Montana resident who has spent more than two decades working in, and writing about, public lands in the American West.

Herring tells Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams, “We should understand that there is a movement afoot to privatize the American public lands, and we should know what those [lands] are before we come down on one side or another in that debate. And we should know who’s driving that debate, and what is at stake for us, and our children and grandchildren.”

The public lands issue has become a rallying point for the Democratic Party in the American West. But while Herring supports the concept of public lands, he’s also sometimes critical of Democratic approaches to the issue, noting that sweeping changes such as the Bill Clinton-era roadless rule and Barack Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument designation have been undertaken without making the case to citizens.

As Herring tells Adams, “I’m convinced that we can not leave environmental and conservation eggs in the basket of one party.” He pushes back on ideological public-lands stances taken by Democrats and Republicans alike, saying the parties “need to horse trade.” He also suggests that the issue presents a unique opportunity for conservative political candidates, saying he’s “waiting for a kind of quiet revolution in conservative America to come to solving environmental problems in the future.”

Herring and Adams also discuss the history of the American public lands movement, from the aftermath of the Mexican-American War through the privatization ideology promoted by President Ronald Reagan, which continues to resonate.

Herring’s conversation with Adams was recorded on the eve of the film’s public premiere. The Montana Lowdown podcast is a weekly publication of Montana Free Press.

Alex McKenzie has worked with a diverse array of start-ups and nonprofit organizations. He is a former record producer and music journalist, has additional experience working in agriculture and food security, and previously operated his own dairy business. He lives in southwest Montana. Follow him on Twitter.