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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What's Old is New in the Sagebrush Rebellion

Malheur NWF Headquarters: By Cacophony
For the past several weeks there has been a little dust up taking place in Southeastern Oregon.  Several “local” ranchers, wise use, and other militia types have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These self-labeled patriots led by the Bundy’s out of Nevada contend the federal government does not have the authority to own or manage public lands.

The Bundys in their standoff are the latest in a long line of “patriots”, who have taken it upon themselves to “return” public land to the people.
Many contend the roots to this predominately western conflict date back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of 1979. The rebellion according to some was a “virtual war” over control of federal lands. It only lasted a short while however; the rebellion’s spirit inspired others like Nevada’s Richard Carver, a former Nye County Council Member. In 1994 as Tim Egan wrote in the New York Times, Mr. Carver took a bulldozer and opened Forest Service roads and declared the county now owned the property. 

These rebellions were followed by others in IDNMMTAK and UT.
Fast forward to today, the Bundy’s and the rest of the Malheur occupiers are trumpeting similar arguments. At its heart they assert the federal government does not own federal land, federal land management agencies are illegitimate, and that public use of federal lands cannot be prohibited.
But if the Bundy’s had solicited the help of a first year law student, they may have saved everyone a lot of time and energy.

Let’s look at their first argument; the federal government cannot set aside lands in federal reserves. The courts answered this question back in 1911 in Light vs. United States. In this case the court found that Congress has the authority to permanently establish federal reserves such as National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, and National Parks.

Okay, but obviously the founders never intended for the creation of federal agencies like the Park, Forest or Fish and Wildlife Services. Wrong again. In fact, in the same year as the Light case, the Court in the United States vs. Grimaud ruled the constitution allows for the creation of federal resource management agencies with the power to determine what actions can take place on public property.

Fine, but obviously public lands belong to all, the Bundy’s and others assert therefore all public activities and uses must be accommodated.

Strike three.

In the 1984 case of Organized Fisherman vs. Watt the Court found that the task of weighing the competing uses of federal property has been delegated by Congress to the Secretary of the Interior.  As such, the Secretary has "broad discretion in determining what actions are best calculated to protect park or public land resources." This power extends up to prohibiting activities that are deemed counter to the public interest.
One would assume, that at least some in the Bundy camp know the law. They know their position is legally weak. If so, what do they actually want? Back in 1996 in my Master’s Thesis I coined the term “subsidized anarchy” to describe what Wise Use, Militia, Patriot, White Supremacist and other rightwing groups actually want. In a nutshell these groups want control of federal lands given to them, removing any “outside” opinions or issues that get in the way of their preferred use. Historically, that preferred use has centered on extractive activities such as logging, mining, and ranching. However they also want federal funds to still be spent on programs such as firefighting and predator control, so that their preferred use may continue.

In other words, they want federal funds and resources without the strings.

Yet, any person who has studied federal land management realizes these “dust ups” appear to occur every 20 years. This is just enough time for the leaders of the new rebellion to have forgotten or never learned the lessons of the previous one. Why do we seem to have this pattern of reoccurring unrest?

It’s because the federal government doesn’t take these rebellions seriously. Often administration officials fail to press charges. In those instances where cases are brought, the courts fail to impose little more than a slap on the wrist. This failure to take resources crimes seriously is also due to congress which in many instances has determined these crimes to be minor offenses.

What can be done?
First, we must support and defend federal ownership and management of our public lands. Second, we must demand that federal officials arrest and prosecute rebellion leaders. A failure to do so, only breeds contempt for federal law. Finally, we must demand that congress reclassify federal resources crimes such as wildlife and timber poaching, and chronic trespass as felonies. This reclassification would provide prosecutors more tools to use against sagebrush scofflaws.

Federal lands belong to all of us, not just those who happen to live nearby. As such, national interests, values, and wishes must be taken into account when managing for their future.  The public domain is a great gift we have inherited from our ancestors; we owe it to future generations to pass it along in equal or better shape.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his thrillers click here or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President:

It's 2016, and shortly you will deliver your final State of the Union. This speech provides an opportunity for you to set the tone and course for your last year in office.

Over the past seven years, under your leadership the country exited its worst economic recession since the great depression. It has seen expanded health care coverage for millions of Americans, and brought Osama Bin Laden to justice.

Yet, during your tenure the country has seen deep divisions. You ran on the hope that America is not separate states of blue and red, but rather one country of purple. It's a noble vision. However, it has yet been achieved.

Thankfully, there is still time to set the course toward unity. The answer lies in remembering our country's past and looking toward its future. In our past, the times of greatest unity occurred when the nation was confronted with significant challenge such as World War II or set a national purpose such as the Apollo Program.

Mr. President you have a similar opportunity before you to unite the American public.

The National Park System is described by some as America's best idea, its greatest gift to world culture. Each year, hundreds of millions of people flock to the national parks because they are responding to what national parks truly are, the physical manifestation of all that the country values and holds dear. They represent universal values of freedom, democracy, progress, and equality.  National Parks such as the Constitution Gardens  and Independence Hall physically embody our national goal to "form a more perfect union."

In August, the National Park Service will mark its 100th birthday.  Over the next several months the National Park Service will mark this anniversary with numerous celebrations, events, and parties. As President, this centennial presents numerous opportunities to articulate the truly American themes and values in a way that brings people together.

Specifically, I ask you to advocate for increased park funding, expanded resource protection, and the addition of new parks, especially large natural parks in the Western United States. I'd also encourage you to designate the Apollo landers as national monuments.

As a former park ranger, I saw first-hand the power national parks have to bring people together. At  evening programs, it was customary to ask people where they were from. Asking this question revealed the farther a person was from home the more people they were likely to identify with. For example, people from Boston would say they are from Massachusetts, while people from Dallas would claim Texas. Someday when people visit the lunar lander monuments and park rangers ask where they are from they will point to the earth and say "I'm from there." We need more reminders that we live on one planet, we share the same air and water. National Parks do just that. They reveal our shared humanity.

I encourage you Mr. President to make it a priority this last year in office to find and focus on unifying themes and efforts. America can be a country of purple, your last year in office can set us on a path to make this happen.


Sean Smith

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his thrillers click here or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers