Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Oregon Standoff: Robin Hoodism in Reverse

The image of the American West is known all over the world, with its vast one open spaces, where the buffalo used to roam, where much of the land is not yet touched by human hands. You can tell how much of this country is still wild when you fly cross-country, when hours go by before you see a town or a road. It is truly a magnificent country.

But all this beauty is now being threatened. Although it is not new, the movement to push the federal government to hand over to the states millions of acres of public land is growing **. The recent Bundy Militia Standoff in Oregon, which got out of hand and resulted in the death of Robert 'LaVoy' Finicum, is a good example of how some Americans hate public land.

The Federal Government owns 28% percent of the land area of the United States. It used to own all of it, of course, when it was acquired in purchases (the Louisiana Purchase), conquests (Mexican Cession), or simply taken from the Native Indians.

Throughout the 19th Century, the Government worked hard at transferring land to state governments and individuals, through the Homestead Act and land grants. In all, more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the U.S., was given away free to homesteaders. It also allowed free use of unclaimed lands by ranchers, and already back then, there were skirmishes over its use.

By 1930, two-thirds of the land had been privatized or state owned, and what was left of the public domain was mostly an overgrazed, giant vacant lot in the West. ***

By the end of the 19th century, the view of wilderness as something that should be tamed was replaced by the idea that unspoiled nature should be protected. The National Parks System was created, the first of which was Yellowstone National Park.

Much of the Federal Land out West is leased to ranchers for grazing or to companies to extract minerals, oil and gas. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where Ammon Bundy and his armed gang have occupied a building, is conservation land where no development is allowed.

But Bundy wants to open the refuge to commercial activity and place it under the ranchers’ and the state’s control. He is clinging to the notion that he is fighting for the American people. What he is really fighting for is the right to destroy a beautiful place.

Ammon Bundy often invokes the Constitution to show that his rights are being violated by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). But if he bothered to actually read the Constitution, he would see that the Property Clause of Article 4 of the Constitution clearly states that ‘Congress has the power “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States”. The clause grants the Federal government full authority over public land.

The big Western states often complain that the percentage of public land inside their territory is exorbitant, compared to that of the Eastern States. But taking into consideration the difference in population density, it is a state like New Jersey that should be complaining. Although less than 4% of New Jersey is Federally owned versus 53% in Oregon, there are 1200 people per square mile in New Jersey, and only 42 in Oregon. Even if you removed all the Federal Land from the equation, you would still have more than ten times the population density in New Jersey. So you see, Federal Land does not encroach on the western states’ population and ability or right to develop their land.

Additionally, states currently receive a percentage of the receipts from federal leases and sales of lands and resources. In 1976, Congress established a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program that provides annual payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes on non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries.

What the Bundys are doing, under the guise of ‘libertarianism’, is freeloading on the backs of you and me, the taxpayers. According to the ‘Bundy rule’, I, a Massachusetts resident, could go out and have my imaginary cows, graze in the Berkshires or any Conservation area in my state. I could build a house, hunt, chop down the trees and sell them, shoot the deer, set fires, sell it to a developer, what have you. And so could all the other 6.7 million residents of my state. This would result in the famous ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and is the main reason why the Government stopped the privatization of the remaining 27% of our public heritage.

Were public land revert to state control, abuses would follow as they did during the Homestead Act era. A common scheme was for an individual, acting as a front for a large cattle operation, to file for a homestead surrounding a water source, under the pretense that the land was to be used as a farm. Once the land was granted, other cattle ranchers would be denied the use of that water source, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. That method was also used by large businesses and speculators to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land.

According to Hugh Nibley, much of the rain forest west of Portland, Oregon was acquired by the Oregon Lumber Company by illegal claims under the Act.

That is what Bundy wants, to give back public land to the States, so that he and his fellow ranchers can bite off a piece, and do whatever they want with it, including sell it for profit.

Our Public Land is one of our more valuable resources that must be kept in public ownership to meet the current needs of the American people and the needs of future generations. Space will be the most valuable commodity in the future, with population growth and it needs to be kept in the public domain, not be up for sale, which undoubtedly will end up in the bottomless pockets of the few at the top.  leave comment here

** See: The Larger, but Quieter Than Bundy, Push to Take Over Federal Land
*** See: United States History Map