The terms of the engagement are clearly expressed in the West's local papers, especially in the Casper Star-Tribune. This small but extraordinary daily, which tries to cover all 97,000 square miles of Wyoming, gives enormous space to local news, and at times, fills two or three broadsheet pages with letters to the editor.
If the Star-Tribune's articles and letters are representative of the heartland, it is likely that the center will hold, but not before it gets a good stretching. If you're looking for a ray of light, take note of a brief article (4/28/95) on Sen. Al Simpson. The conservative Republican senator got involved in a dispute over a Bureau of Land Management plan for the Grass Creek area in the Big Horn Basin area (HCN, 4/17/95). In response to criticism of the BLM and of the plan at a town meeting in Worland, Simpson said:
"And as far as the bureaucracy, when you get talking about that - the public lands - you must remember that people of the United States do not believe, in any sense, that they are Wyoming lands. And they are not. They are the lands of the United States of America in total. They are not Wyoming lands."
A person in the audience said: "I disagree with you, Senator."
Simpson continued, "I know, but the Constitution does not. And the laws of the United States do not. But, please, we've got to start with the basic facts and the basic fact is that the national lands belong to the United States of America whether we like it or not. No lawsuit's going to change that, that I know of."
Saying at a public meeting that the public lands belong to all Americans may seem a small thing. But in certain parts of the West - including Worland - it is not.
Simpson's junior colleague, first-term Republican Representative Barbara Cubin, is focused on the supposed misdeeds of federal bureaucrats. The April 25 issue of the Star-Tribune quoted her as saying, "I don't believe that the dialogue that has taken place about over-zealousness of government agencies is responsible for" the Oklahoma City bombing.
She continued, "The second amendment (-A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed') was originally crafted so that people could defend themselves from an overzealous federal government ... "
The reaction was swift. In an April 27 letter titled, "That was a vote, Cubin, not a coup," William J. Rudd of Green River wrote that it is OK to push for smaller government. "However, it is inexcusable for our elected representatives to suggest that citizens take up arms against the same system which she has taken an oath to support. It borders on treason."
The Forest Service electronic mail system provided an interesting account of an April 22 meeting in Klamath Falls, Ore. The writer was Winema National Forest's public affairs officer, Frank Erickson, who was one of 200 people who gathered to hear Nevada rancher Wayne Hage, author of Storm over Range-lands, and Nye County, Nev., County Commissioner Dick Carver.
Hage said the federal government may own the land, but that the federal estate is subject to prior existing rights by users. Hage is currently suing in federal court for the right to graze on the Toiyabe National Forest without regulation from the Forest Service.
Carver said the only federal lands in his county are the post office and a military reserve. The public lands, including national forest and BLM lands, belong to Nye County. He did not split hairs, as Hage did, over ownership and control. In Carver's view, each county owns and controls the federal land within its boundaries.
Hage and Carver also split, mildly, over Oklahoma City. Hage said, "... the result was predictable, given the frustation people feel toward government."
But Carver said, "The bombing of the Forest Service office in Carson City (HCN, 4/17/95) was an inside job. I'm not sure about Oklahoma City."
After reporting on the meeting in his hometown, Erickson had this advice for his co-workers in the Forest Service:
"When the Home Rule Road Show comes to your town, attend. Discussion with participants may be difficult, but our only hope for understanding and compromise lies in meeting with people face to face." Erickson also writes: "Don't equate zealotry with ignorance. There is much to learn from these people. I may not agree with Wayne Hage, but he's nobody's fool. I'm now reading Storm over Range-lands."
* Ed Marston, HCN publisher