Monday, January 4, 2016

Thoughts on Western Lands and Militia Standoffs

Regular readers know that overheard conversations in the Y locker room can be fodder for observations about what local right wingers are talking about, but every now and then I run across a kindred spirit that can lead to a real conversation, and so I did today.  The subject of the Bundy gang’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon came up.  

It reminded me of other kindred spirits: the ones I came across on the Net who are sympathetic to Bundy.  Although the stream of comments was long, there was a certain consistency in them with three assertions being made repeatedly.

First, it’s all the fault of the feds, as if the feds (which I take to be a singular noun) is an alien entity unrelated to “We the people,” meaning the nation.  Their immediate villain is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but it seems that the BLM is simply a place holder for anything that can be labeled as the feds.  They proclaim affection for the Constitution, but hateful distrust of the government that it established.  Does that seem peculiar?

Second, they assert that the land does not belong to the feds, but to the people, and the people they have in mind is them, and not anybody else.  It’s true that Bundy claims the them he has in mind are the several thousand residents of Harney County,  of which he is not a resident, but news reports suggest that county leaders are not so sure they want to be associated with him.  What his sympathizers mean when they say the land belongs to the people are the particular ranchers who want to use land belonging to the nation in any way they see fit, preferably for free, because the people to whom it belongs is them.

Third, they appear to be ignorant of or uncaring that the local indian tribes were the “owners” of record before the nation took over.  I suppose you could argue that the British were also in there for a time,but almost nobody remembers that.  If there is any just claim of prior rights, it’s the local tribes’ and nobody else’s.  I suppose a lawyer might try to make a case for adverse possession, but I don’t think it would fly because the BLM never surrendered or ignored it’s supervisory responsibility.

Those are the sympathizers’ three points.  They are made in  dozens of ways, but they’re always the same three points.  Now here’s a question.  Is there any validity at all to their claims?

When I was doing consulting work in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains many years ago, I heard scores of complaints about the BLM and its stewardship of the land.  It was said that the agency was too often led by people who ruled with a heavy hand, and had little understanding of western lands.  To make it worse, they showed arrogant disinterest in what local people had to say, even though local ranchers and small towns depend for their livelihood on their ability to use BLM lands.  Some had ranched on BLM lands for several generations, so it’s not odd that they would adopt a sense of ownership.  I would have done the same had I been there.  I also talked with local BLM managers, and learned that they knew the land and its needs very well, were deeply concerned about the poor stewardship record of some ranchers, and understood full well that their several years on site would never allow them to be treated as locals, if only because they were seldom given the chance to not be the enemy.  It made conditions ripe for mistrust.  Maybe things have changed since then, but I have my doubts.


Add to that the Bundy types who operate in a make believe world in which they feel free to name God as their authority for doing whatever they want, and whose idea of loyalty to the Constitution does not include adherence to the nation’s rule of law, only their own.  The result is a gang that has the potential for the kind of violence that, in some other context, might be called Taliban, or even ISIS.

1 comment:

Dianna Woolley said...

Excellent points. Thank you!