Fairy tales about the West are fueling public lands conflict

 

Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee:

Last month, a federal court indicted the armed extremists who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon on multiple counts of felony conspiracy, making threats and other serious charges. The property damage they caused, which is still being assessed, will likely be charged to the American taxpayers on whose behalf they claimed to be acting.

While they and their patron, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, now face the prospect of years behind bars, their ideology still enjoys considerable support in Washington and shows no signs of going away. The same figures who hailed the militia as patriots and defenders of the Constitution are advancing plans to transfer enormous tracts of federal land to state and local control, which all too often is a step away from selling them off to the highest bidder.

It’s easy to forget now, but when the Oregon standoff was at its peak, few Beltway Republicans offered a word of protest. All too often, we heard that a band of confused, gun-brandishing fanatics had legitimate grievances and good reason to invade a national wildlife refuge. One of my colleagues, Idaho Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, even suggested they were engaged in a “peaceful” act of “civil disobedience.”

On Jan. 6, to restore some balance to the conversation, I offered a resolution of disapproval, calling on the militia to leave the refuge peacefully and surrender to local officials. My colleagues across the aisle ignored it, and not one Republican cosponsored it.

Instead, the Federal Land Action Group, a coalition headed by two House Republicans, is continuing to conduct roundtables calling for the same kinds of federal property giveaways the Bundy group described as its main goal. These efforts are not supported by the Constitution. Unfortunately, given the economic dislocation happening across the West, many Americans see federal land transfers as a chance to return to the good old days: free land, plentiful resources and a blank check to treat the Earth like a bottomless gold mine. 

Laugh kills lonesome, by Charles Marion Russell. Russell's paintings helped build an image of the idyllic West.

The people selling this fantasy know better, and they need to level with the people they represent before the Malheur standoff is repeated. That begins with telling the truth about the West. Because of episodes as diverse as the Louisiana Purchase and the federal government’s shameful genocide against Native American tribes, Uncle Sam once owned most of our country’s property — not because of any theft from state or local officials but because of the often messy ways in which we became a nation.

Federal agencies spent the past century giving most of this property away, or selling it on the cheap to provide space for homes, farms, mines, universities, railroads and cities across the West. What remains in federal hands today is land the homesteaders or the Union Pacific Railroad never wanted in the first place.

Recently, the West has been hit hard by the fact that our historic levels of resource extraction and development have proven unsustainable. The good old days were great for settling the West, but they were never meant to — and couldn’t — last forever. Many of the elected and unelected spokespeople for the “land transfer” movement know this, but they continue to use people’s anger and frustration to advance their unconstitutional ideological agenda.

Until we tell the truth about the West — how it came to be, and what it was, what it is now, and what it can become in the future — we can’t have a real discussion about job training, clean energy expansion and other forms of government reinvestment that will improve the quality of life in these areas. Peddling violent delusions of armed rebellion against tyranny is the last thing that’s going to help a two-parent household in Wyoming make ends meet or a working mother in Montana afford child care. Those are the people we need to focus on now.

Better federal, state and local government policies will ensure that Western communities have time to plan for the future and that working people can continue to earn a good living. An imaginary version of the past is a sad indulgence and fails to help any of us.

 

A previous version of this story said no one consponsored Rep. Grijalva's bill; it has been changed to clarify no Republicans cosponsored the bill.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.