Let’s face it, we Easterners – and by this I mean anyone who lives east of the Mississippi River – don’t really get the Western land use issue. It is so big: the land, the sky, the history. At first glance, an Easterner may want to dismiss the armed grouplet that took over Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, as a bunch of fringe right-wingers.
They are that. But they also have seized upon decades of grievances about federal land policies, economic insecurity and poverty; the dynamic tension between federal and state control that has existed since the founding of the country; and other collective histories that gather like storm clouds over the Big Sky horizon. Some of these histories include: Manifest Destiny, the Indian Removal Act, and the expansion of slavery, which was at the heart of the U.S. – Mexican War in the 1840s.
In my two road trips out West–the first from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park and the second from Chicago to the westernmost point on the lower 48, Cape Alava, Washington, located on that state’s Olympic Peninsula–the states we had to cross seemed to go on and on.
I remember the big joke during one of our trips was: “Are we still in Nebraska?” As in Willa Cather’s novel, My Ántonia: “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
And indeed, as Cather suggests – land, air, water, flora, fauna, minerals, plus the labor applied to such material–are precisely the material of which countries – and economies and profits – are made. The grandeur boggles the mind.
There’s value in the land, above it and below it too. The current armed takeover is merely the most recent in a series of armed standoffs with the federal government over land use. Other examples have included: the Bundy Ranch in April 2014; Oregon’s Sugar Pine Mine in April 2015; Montana’s White Hope Mine in August 2015. Now it is happening in Oregon again, in January 2016 at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
The federal government owns almost half the land (46.9 percent) in eleven Western states, according to aCongressional report. Various federal agencies are in charge of “40 million acres, about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States,” including grasslands and forests, national parks and wildlife refuges. It owns 61.2 percent of Alaska. By contrast, the government owns about four percent of the land in the other 38 states; overall, federal ownership has declined in the last two decades.
Regarding current federal land use policies and ranchers, surely there is room for improvement. But the government is supposed to manage in the public’s interest–not solely in the interest of ranchers or loggers or any other group label that the militias co-opt to legitimize their plight.
And when it comes to rhetorical fig leaves to cover land grabbing and profiteering, Native people have heard it all.
Yet Native tribes are not joining forces with the armed militia takeover. That could be because the armed militia is not calling for federal lands to be returned to their original inhabitants. Instead, the militias call for a return to “loggers” and “ranchers,” and some call for state and local control. This puts them at odds with tribal and Native people’s interests. In addition, these militias are notorious for their racism, including ties to anti-Native groups.
In those eleven states where the federal government owns almost half the land (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming), one form of anti-Native racism comes from groups that urge the takeover of Native lands and natural resource rights.
Case study: Montana
In Montana, residents have expressed alarm at the shadowy network of armed militias, far-right racist hate groups, legislators and lobbyists. One group called the American Lands Council, which tries to put on a moderate front, has ties to the modern-day land-grab movement (of which the Bundys are a part). Their sights are set not only on federal lands but Indian tribal lands as well. Montana state Senator Jennifer Fielder co-leads a group,the Sanders County Resource Council, along with the founder of the Militia of Montana, John Trochmann, according to the blog Montana Cowgirl.
Fielder, who is also vice chair of the state GOP, works closely with the American Lands Council, introducing many of its land transfer bills and groups such as the Wisconsin-based Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance (CERA) that have specific anti-Indian agendas. According to an October 2015 report coauthored by three Montana human rights and Native rights groups, CERA is “dedicated to terminating tribal governments, abrogating treaties and turning management of tribal resources over to state government. CERA is, according to an opinion piece published in the Missoulian, “the most notorious anti-Indian group in the country.”
The report warns, “ALC’s alliance with CERA again highlights the group’s ties to a broader far-right movement that threatens treaty rights, civil rights and environmental protection.”
In a 2014, Indian Country Today article, “Anti-Indian CERA doesn’t like the law of the land in United States, or us, apparently,” author Terri Hansen exposes CERA’s stated mission. “Federal Indian Policy is unaccountable, destructive, racist and unconstitutional. It is therefore CERA’s mission to ensure the equal protection of the law as guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution of the United States.”
Serving corporate interests
These anti-Native and anti-federal government agendas are linked as covers for private interests. A Koch brothers-funded group, Americans For Prosperity, donates money to the American Lands Council. The formidable AFP, along with other Koch brothers networks of think tanks and policy groups, influence politics across the nation and the land-grab movement with its inherent anti-regulatory agenda is right up the oil billionaires’ alley and their corporate/billionaire brethren’s.
Take the real beef barons–not the ranchers but giant agribusiness, like the four meat-packing corporations–who through their monopoly control 82 percent of the market and are able to set low prices for cattle, putting pressure on ranchers, according to Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.
“But the real beef that struggling ranchers should take up with the federal government involves not zealous federal regulation, but rather its opposite: the way the feds have watched idly as giant meat-packing companies came to dominate the US beef production chain,” he wrote.
Public interest in public lands
With more and more attention on beef production and consumption as a major contributor to many health and environmental problems, from climate change to heart disease, maybe turning over public lands to the meat-packing conglomerates is not in the public interest.
What could serve the public interest, for instance,is working with ranchers on regulating themeat-packing industry, as Philpott suggests. In addition, there are many time-tested ways to smartly utilize the lands for recreation, tourism and education.
According to 2011 report by the White House Rural Council, “The great American outdoors … represents a critical source of jobs and an invaluable national treasure.
Department of Interior-managed lands alone attract more than 400 million visits each year, representing approximately 8 percent of overall tourism spending in the United States.”
Wouldn’t it be great if every school-age child got a chance to visit a working ranch? Or hike a Western wildlife refuge? Or learn about Native cultures of the West?
The armed standoff in Harney County has yet to be resolved; they are a symptom of the decades-long tumult over land use that continues to roil the West. But with Native groups such as the Paiute speaking up in Oregon, and human rights groups fighting back in Montana, there is reason for hope. Despite the armed takeovers, anti-Indian racism and the billionaire-backed lobbyists, the people of the West – white, Native, and other groups – have so far rebuffed the militias’ agenda, for which the entire nation should be grateful.
Photo: Andy Nelson/AP