[October 28, 2016: See update below.]
January 12, 2016: It's been over a week since a group of armed far-right militiamen started to occupy the headquarters building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. In that time, hundreds of articles have been published analyzing the actions, the intentions, the history and the character of the gang who's forced the closure of the 187,757-acre wildlife refuge, first protected by President Theodore Roosevelt in August 1908.
Some of the articles do a great job of delving into the group's loathing of science, or individual members' accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in government handouts while decrying government intrusion into their lives, or the notable lack of support the group is getting from the constituency it claims to represent.
But as cogent and informative as some of those essays have been, you don't really need to read them to get a sense of what the Malheur occupiers are after. Nor do you need to analyze the words coming from the group itself. Actions speak louder than words, as they say, and in this case the group's action says it all. They seized land that belongs to you, and now you can't go there. And they say they're just getting started.
[Update: On October 27, eight and one-half months after the last of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge surrendered, an Oregon jury returned verdicts of "not guilty" for seven Malheur occupiers on charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers by force, threat or intimidation. Occupiers Jeff Banta, Shawna Cox, David Fry, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler were freed, while Ammon and Ryan Bundy were held to face trial on other charges stemming from the 2014 confrontation at their father Cliven Bundy's ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. Given the verdict despite the apparent slam-dunk nature of the charges — with evidence of the violations broadcast worldwide throughout the occupation — it is unclear whether the verdict will embolden further violations of your right to enjoy your public lands described in this article. We'll be following the reaction to the verdict, and to the upcoming trial in Nevada.]
Leading the occupiers, as you've likely read, is Ammon Bundy, son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who is still more than a million dollars in arrears after decades of refusing to pay the bargain-basement grazing fees the Bureau of Land Management charges ranchers who graze their stock on land you and I own. Bundy the younger had apparently been planning the takeover for at least two months with fellow militia types, though -- as many of you will also likely have read -- that logistical planning apparently didn't extend to bringing provisions.
The occupation was sparked by the pending imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, on arson charges stemming from two incidents where the Hammonds were convicted of having set fires that spread to public land. The two served the jail terms to which they were sentenced, and paid the fines imposed, but were ordered back to prison after an appeals court found the presiding judge had erred in not imposing a Federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years for arson affecting public lands.
Mandatory minimum sentencing, which predominantly affects poor, urban, and non-white Americans, is usually championed by far-right activists. The Malheur occupiers' view that the Hammond's five-year sentences are an example of federal government overreach is thus simultaneously incongruous and sensible, the result of selective application of ethical standards.
But that selectivity makes sense in context. The Malheur militants want a system of special rights for ranchers, and the rest of us can just butt out. Ammon Bundy says the Malheur NWR should be disbanded, and its lands handed over to a preselected group of local ranchers for their own use and enjoyment. They would establish Roman-Empire-style latifundia across the west, extensive tracts of essentially private land where a few families reap the benefits of public subsidies, and the public that pays those subsidies isn't welcome.
The Malheur occupation is taking place in a larger context. In addition to Bundy senior's ongoing resistance to paying his bills, there are increasing calls to privatize public lands all over the West. Some of those calls are coming from people who have clearly spent too much time reading Infowars, but some come from well-heeled representatives of the foundation-funded right.
On Monday, the New York Times tried to contextualize the Malheur invasion as part of a larger, corporate-sponsored far-right campaign to take remaining public lands away from the public.
The Times' writers led with a mention of Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, who founded the anti-public-lands group the American Lands Council.
Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah, has been roaming the West with an alluring pitch to cattle ranchers, farmers and conservatives upset with how Washington controls the wide-open public spaces out here: This land is your land, he says, and not the federal government's.
The writers don't use quotation marks, so it's unclear whether they or Ivory had the best-known song of avowed socialist Woody Guthrie come to mind as a defense of handing over the common property of the American people to a few corporations. But someone did.
The Perils of Privatization
As it happens, while Bundy et al were seizing the refuge headquarters, I was traveling in a different part of the Pacific Northwest: Washington's Olympic Peninsula, home of Olympic National Park -- created by Teddy Roosevelt six months after he set aside the Malheur for wildlife conservation purposes. Over the last week, while Ammon Bundy and his band held sway in the press, my significant other and I wandered the woods that line the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca -- my first actual vacation in about a decade.
The National Park Service is just one of many landholders in the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic National Forest, two-thirds the size of the Park, is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The state's Department of Natural Resources manages about 371,000 acres on the Peninsula, and there are a number of wonderful state and county parks as well.
And since much of the nearby portion of ONP was inaccessible -- storms had taken out several of the roads leading in from the Port Angeles area -- we turned to those other public lands for hiking and nature observation. But to get to them, we drove past a whole lot of tempting forest marked with "No Trespassing" signs. Some of those signs were on private vacation residential developments enclosing the third and fourth homes of affluent people. More were on seemingly endless tracts of what were labeled "tree farms."
It's hard, and arguably pointless, to begrudge a small-scale landowner a No Trespassing sign if what they're after is a bit of respite, of privacy, a way to keep random passersby from hunting or otherwise disturbing the serenity of their land. But it's different when those signs mark thousands of acres of corporate-owned land that might have been public except for an agency bureaucrat's whim.
The history of public lands in the U.S. is a complex one, tainted from the outset by the uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of public lands in the U.S. were obtained as spoils in a war of genocide. Some lands were stolen outright, some gained through treaties the Natives signed under duress. Others were bought from countries that obtained them in like fashion. That Original Sin casts a pall over all discussions of public land management in the U.S., and wrangling between tribes and feds over land continues to this day, though usually in conference rooms and courtrooms rather than on the field of battle.
But what the Malheur militia and their fellow travelers won't tell you is that for close to a century after the U.S. federal government first went into the real estate business, it couldn't give land away fast enough.
The popular, romantic conception of this massive giveaway centers around laws like the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Homestead Act and similar laws, Americans could claim a piece of public land, usually a "quarter-section" of 160 acres, and gain title after five years of residence and improvements. If you ignore where the land came from in the first place, laws like the Homestead Act were admirable in their democratic intent.
And the ultraconservatives of the 19th Century -- Bundy's predecessors -- opposed the Homestead Act. They had in mind an aristocratic West, where slaveholders could greatly expand their existing empires. A grassroots system of land distribution would have impeded their visions of plantations on the Colorado, the Arkansas, the San Joaquin and the Rio Grande. It wasn't until Secession, and the departure of pro-slavery senators from Washington, that the Homestead Act was able to make it to Lincoln's desk.
The Homestead Act wasn't without its major flaws. It contributed to the further displacement of Native people by encouraging massive settlement. It was designed by politicians accustomed to less-arid environments, where a family could support itself in some comfort on a quarter section. In Utah? Not so much.
And there's this: Since the feds did little to verify that homesteaders actually lived and farmed on the land in question, the Act was abused by ranchers. By strategically filing homestead claims on the West's sparse water sources, sometimes using their ranch hands as proxies, ranches were able to gain de facto exclusive control over broad swathes of public lands. If they denied other ranchers access to those water sources, they could essentially lock up thousands of acres of surrounding grazing lands for their own private use.
Tensions between struggling homesteaders and the often-wealthy cattle barons whose livestock surrounded them was so prevalent, and so entrenched, as to have become a standard Hollywood trope.
By the time it was repealed in the late 20th Century, the Homestead Act of 1862 was responsible for private owners gaining title to 420,000 square miles of public lands. That's an area larger than California and Texas combined. And the Homestead Act was just one 19th Century move by the Federal government to divest itself of public lands. Direct grants of land to railroads transferred another 273,000 square miles of the West into private hands; much of that acreage ended up in the hands of ranchers as well. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 allowed the sale of public forest lands deemed unsuitable for farming for $2.50 an acre: timber companies took full advantage of this offer, often violating its requirements to do so.
By the 1930s, when public opinion forced land management agencies to focus more on managing and preserving public lands rather than giving them away wholesale, the U.S. government had disposed of two-thirds of its inventory of public lands. There are 640 million acres still in the Federal public domain, excluding military bases but including National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and BLM lands. A BLM estimate in 2013 put the total acreage of land transferred out of federal hands at more than 1.2 billion acres.
That's a lot of potential "No Trespassing" signs. Still, 640 million acres of existing public land makes those signs a bit easier to pass by with an untroubled mind. At least in theory, those 640 million acres -- a million square miles -- are open, accessible to those of us who want to visit our common heritage, habitat for wildlife and provider of solitude.
"Mostly it belongs to you and me."
But despite a few sales by the railroad companies, and the above-mentioned Homestead Act violations, ranchers continue to this day to rely on public lands. As essayist Bernard DeVoto put it in his 1947 Harpers' piece The West Against Itself,
The Cattle Kingdom never did own more than a minute fraction of one per cent of the range it grazed: it was national domain, it belonged to the people of the United States. They do not own the range now: mostly it belongs to you and me, and since the fees they pay for using public land are much smaller than those they pay for using private land, those fees are in effect one of a number of subsidies we pay them. But they always acted as if they owned the public range and act so now; they convinced themselves that it belonged to them and now believe it does; and they are trying to take title to it.
Flash forward from 1947 to 2015, and think of this week's revelation that the occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have been removing fences put in place by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to regulate where livestock can graze on the refuge.
That's right, "regulate." Not "prevent." Of 560 National Wildlife Refuges across the country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits grazing on at least 183. The Malheur NWR is one of those 183, and its staff have a reputation for being quite willing to work with local ranchers. Malheur staff and local ranchers have worked for the last couple of decades to craft a management plan intended to provide food for cattle while improving wildlife habitat.
It's not hard to find environmentalists who object to such collaborative solutions between livestock growers and land managers, but those environmentalists don't run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Or the Bureau of Land Management. Or the U.S. Forest Service. Grazing is even permitted in 32 units of the National Park system, including the Mojave National Preserve.
It's long been a truism that no industrial sector has been so coddled, with so little economic benefit in return, as public lands livestock grazers. The entire public lands ranching industry generates just three percent of the beef produced in the U.S., and accounts for less than one percent of either jobs or income even in ranch-heavy states like Wyoming and Montana.
That's despite significant federal subsidies. In 2016, it costs $1.69 a month to graze a cow and calf on BLM or Forest Service lands. That's somewhere around a sixth of what it costs the Feds to administer the grazing program, and as little as a tenth what ranchers pay for their livestock to graze on private lands.
The Federal government also spends an undisclosed amount -- certainly well into the millions of dollars each year -- on killing predators ranchers fear may be targeting their livestock, said campaign being administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division.
And that's not counting the money we spend to repair landscapes, control invasive plants spread by livestock, fight fires sparked by those invasive species, and even to convene years-long collaboration sessions on the sage grouse instead of inconveniencing ranchers by just listing the species as endangered.
It's worth noting that this long-term practice of bending over backwards to placate public lands ranchers exists despite the reason any grazing restrictions on public lands were ever enacted in the first place. In the 1890s, when Congress created the Forest Reserves that would eventually become our National Forests, they did so as an express reaction to an orgy of both unsustainable logging and rampant overgrazing on those lands. In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act require the Secretary of the Interior "to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing."
The restrictions that prompt complaints from the Malheur militia, in other words, are there because ranchers couldn't be trusted to regulate themselves.
"I saw a sign there"
Times have arguably changed. The wave of environmental concern that swept the world in the 20th Century affected ranchers as much as it did apartment dwellers, and it's not hard to find livestock growers talking about their product in terms that would please the most ardent Silver Lake localvore. It's worth noting that most local ranchers in Harney County have treated the Bundy Bunch with something like derision.
By contrast, Ammon Bundy and the rest of his band seem stuck back in a 19th Century that never actually happened, where ranchers are "the people" and the actual people who might want to hike, camp, or watch birds on land they own are considered jackbooted thugs, good only for paying the bills and then staying away, carefully keeping to the front side of the No Trespassing sign.
As it happens, the socialist songwriter who penned This Land Is Your Land had something to say about that. Most of us learn just the first two verses of that song in grade school, but there are many, and one of them goes like this:
As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." But on the other side it didn't say nothing, That side was made for you and me.
At least as long as we're paying the bills.