(HELENA) Several hundred people packed the auditorium at Helena Middle School Friday, ready to bring their concerns directly to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Tester held a hour-long town hall meeting. While the event was focused on public lands issues, he also took questions on everything from health care to military spending.
Tester said Congress should reconsider proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets, included in President Donald Trump’s executive budget. He also called on lawmakers to adopt a proposal that would treat wildfires as a natural disaster, freeing up money currently used for firefighting.
“If they have to spend it on fighting forest fires, they’re not going to spend it on trail maintenance,” Tester said.
The senator also announced he’s introduced legislation to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund provides millions of dollars in grants to encourage conservation and expand public access and recreational opportunities.
Tester repeated his opposition to allowing mining leases in the Paradise Valley near Yellowstone, and said he’s opposed to putting limits on the Endangered Species Act.
“The ESA came along because people understood in my folks’ generation that, if you eliminate enough animals, we’re the next animal to be eliminated,” he said.
Tester said public lands generate billions of dollars in economic activity and support tens of thousands of jobs in Montana. He told the audience he’s committed to opposing any transfer or sale of federal lands.
“Public lands need to remain in public hands,” said Tester. “I think it’s too big to our economy, too big to our way of life to let it go any other direction.”
The Helena event came two weeks after Tester held another town hall meeting in Great Falls, focused on health care.
During Friday’s meeting, Tester argued the health care bill being proposed by Republican leaders in the U.S. House would be devastating for rural Montanans and for small hospitals in the state.
“In my small town, it took 50 years from the time the homesteaders came to build that hospital, and it’s been another 50 years since it was built,” Tester said. “If it closes, it won’t reopen.”
Tester took several questions from people upset with actions of the Trump administration, such as proposed budget reductions at certain federal agencies or the proposal to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
In response, Tester said the country and its system of checks and balances are “being tested.” But he told the audience he’s encouraged because of the strong interest in public issues he’s seen from members of the public. He encouraged them to remain engaged and stay in contact with their legislators.
“When your opinion’s out there, and you don’t think it’s being heard, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “It is being heard.”