Leading the charge to ‘keep it public’

Leading the charge to ‘keep it public’
© Greg Nash

Land Tawney’s favorite place in the world is a 1.1 million-acre expanse of mountainous terrain called the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, outside his home in Missoula, Mont. 

He also says he will “defend until the day I die” Montana’s Rock Creek, his all-time favorite fishing spot. 


And his 8-year-old daughter’s idea of a birthday party is a trip to the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in remote Idaho. 

For Tawney, issues of conservation, public lands and access to the backcountry are personal as well as professional.

Tawney leads Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a sportsmen’s group advocating for the preservation of public lands. His position brings him to Washington up to a dozen times a year, where he reminds Congress and the administration of the role that public lands play in consumer spending on the outdoors, which totals hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

“I know enough to be dangerous out here, but I still have that authenticity for coming from home, right?” Tawney said in an interview at Eastern Market’s Beuchert’s Saloon during a lobbying trip to D.C. last week. 

“I’m a fifth-generation Montanan, so that’s where my home is, and I feel like that gives me some authenticity when I come out here, because I’m living the life, and not because I’m a CEO — it’s just what I’ve always done.”

Tawney’s group has grown tenfold over its 13-year existence, boasting 12,000 members and chapters in 35 states and two Canadian provinces. The organization’s goal is to promote conservation and keep public the vast acreage of land owned by the federal government, an agenda met with skepticism and suspicion by many conservatives. 

Twice in the last six months, Tawney’s group has had to go on the offensive — and it can claim some success. 

In December, reports surfaced that then-President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE was planning to nominate Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Top House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing More than 100 lawmakers urge IRS to resolve stimulus payment issues MORE (R-Wash.) to head the Interior Department.  

McMorris Rodgers had supported legislation to sell or transfer federal land holdings, a position anathema to Tawney’s group. So BHA put out a statement against her nomination, something that reportedly caught the eye of group member Donald Trump Jr., who then urged his father to select Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) for the position instead. 

“We came out very hard, and I think that had some influence on the decision,” Tawney said, adding that while he spoke to Trump Jr. before the transition, he didn’t raise potential candidates for the Interior post.

“Did we talk about the importance of Theodore Roosevelt and having that be a part of the administration? Yes,” Tawney said. “Did we talk about Zinke in particular? No.” 

Then, in January, Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah) introduced a bill to sell off 3 million acres of public land in the West. Tawney’s group and others mobilized and put pressure on the House Oversight chairman, who withdrew the bill a week later, announcing the decision in an Instagram post that included the hashtag “#KeepItPublic,” which BHA created.

Congress had seen other public land divestment bills before, but none had been pulled as quickly as Chaffetz’s. Tawney attributed that to the work of BHA and others promoting public lands.

“There wasn’t really that awareness and that kind of angst that was here this time,” he said. “To watch that all happen and then to watch him … use the hashtag #KeepItPublic, which we had established, that’s true power.”

Tawney said he’s “very concerned” about Trump ordering a review of national monument designations going back 20 years. Former President Obama unilaterally protected millions of acres in moves decried by conservatives as federal land grabs, and green groups fear Trump could roll back the protections. 

“We would rather be working on how do you make the management better on our public lands than trying to go back to this water that’s already underneath the bridge,” Tawney said.

Tawney, 42, came to appreciate public lands through his Montana roots, and he was influenced heavily by his parents, the first full-time environmental lobbyists at the Montana legislature.

When his father, Phil, died in 1995, “I kind of had this awakening, and I wanted to be involved in conservation,” Tawney said.

Before joining BHA, Tawney held a handful of positions in conservation groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Project (TRCP) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), where he helped promote legislation on mining reform and wetlands preservation in Louisiana. 

BHA “formed around a campfire” in 2004, he said, with Tawney joining as its CEO in 2013. Conservation advocates say the group has grown under Tawney into a strategic, effective ally in the public-land sector. 

“I’ve always loved his passion and his conservation ethics,” Lew Carpenter, a regional representative at the NWF, said.

“He’s very strong and he’s committed to the movement, and he’s a very galvanizing speaker. He’s an easy leader to follow; you can have a lot of faith in him.”

Tawney ran a super PAC supporting Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse Overnight Defense: Senate poised to pass defense bill with requirement to change Confederate base names | Key senator backs Germany drawdown | Space Force chooses 'semper supra' as motto Democrats call for expedited hearing for Trump's public lands nominee MORE (D-Mont.) in 2012, but he said today he’s focused more on advocacy than politics, a position that has earned him bipartisan influence. 

Republican Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) called Tawney “someone we can have good, healthy, constructive dialogue back and forth on these important issues to so many Montanans.”

BHA is pushing for a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the main federal conservation program, and Tawney said the Trump administration reviewing current water regulations makes him “nervous.” 

“The jury is still out” on Zinke, Tawney said. The Interior secretary, whom Tawney has known since his days in the Montana legislature, often invokes the conservation legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, and “we’re going to applaud him for the good things that he does, and then we’re going to hold him accountable for the things that we think doesn’t quite fit that Theodore Roosevelt policy.” 

“Land’s not afraid to take action on issues that are important for hunters and anglers and fish and wildlife,” said Joel Webster, the director of the TRCP’s Center for Western Lands.

“Some of these issues are tricky politically, and he’s not afraid to take charge on these things if they’re the right thing to do, and he’s made a name for himself for doing that.”

Tawney’s goals for BHA are lofty: He said he wants to “build a grassroots army” to influence legislation made up of young people, women and sportsmen not usually inclined to join the political process. 

“We’re combining this sage wisdom from some of our older members with this youthful exuberance that’s very unique in our space, that’s very unique in the conservation movement in general,” he said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for other sportsmen’s organizations to do advocacy.”