“We have to do this,” Blaine Cooper told me in a rush. “The BLM lit a fire to burn this ranch down because they want the uranium that’s under it! The left blew up buildings, killed people, enslaved people to make this wildlife refuge!”
Cooper was sitting behind the wheel of a white pickup, heater blasting, and talking to me through the open window. It was the middle of last January, maybe 12 degrees above, here at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, with day just breaking over a universe of frost-whitened sagebrush and 6 inches of old snow.
Duane Ehmer, riding by on his cow horse, Hellboy, was dressed for duty in a furry cap with earflaps and an old red, white, and blue leather jacket and well-worn chaps, plus a cap-and-ball Colt pistol. The big American flag he carried barely moved in the ice-fogged stillness. Later in the day, Ehmer would tell me that he believed that the federal government had “taken away the land from good-hearted American people,” and that soon enough, our public lands would be sold off to help pay the U.S. debt to China. He was worried that he would have no place to hunt or ride his horse if and when that happened. He seemed like a good guy, the kind of person who would be handy to have with you on a tough job, or in a backcountry camp.
I went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to meet these militants who had taken over the refuge headquarters and talk to them about what they were doing, and why they were so opposed to the public lands that are the sole reason I moved to the West 26 years ago and raised a family here. Cooper and some of his companions seemed to be lost in a shadow world of conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and boilerplate antigovernment fury.
But the friendly Ehmer was at least half correct. There is indeed a carefully crafted movement under way to rob Americans of their public lands. It’s a movement led not by armed and ranting men decked out in militia getups, nor the Ammon Bundy types in their cowboy hats, but by soft-handed politicians in business attire, dreaming of riches and a transformation of our country that will bring us into line with the rest of a crowded world where only the elite and the very lucky have access to wildlife, open spaces, rivers and lakes, and the kind of freedom that we have for so long taken for granted.
Randy Newberg, one of America’s most outspoken public-land hunter- conservationists, points out that transferring control of public lands to the states, or to private hands, is not a political issue—it’s an American issue. “So many people I talk with just don’t seem to know what is at stake,” says Newberg. “The idea of our public lands, in public hands, is one of the greatest contributions that America ever gave to the world—that we the people are invested in our own lands. It’s part of our democracy, and it is exactly what gave birth to the American conservation movement that made us the envy of the world.”
The Great Land Rescue
At Malheur, none of the occupiers I spoke with knew the history of what they claimed to be opposing. Here’s the short version: Homestead acts beginning in 1862 awarded more than 270 million acres of land (about 10 percent of the nation’s land area) to tough, optimistic settlers who staked their claims from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean (the only requirement was being able to prove that you had never taken up arms against the U.S. government). The Railroad Act of 1862 was the first of a series of grants that gave away another 175 million public acres (much of it timberlands that could supply railroad ties and other materials) to encourage railroad companies to build the transportation infrastructure that would complete the settling of the West. In the rough-and-tumble closing of the American frontier in the late 19th century, millions of acres that were too remote, dry, or rugged for settlement or other uses went unclaimed. These lands were subjected to a ruthless free-for-all of mining, logging, and grazing that left much of the landscape unusable, and the wildlife threatened with extinction.
It was a dire situation, and the American solution was unique to the world at the time: President Benjamin Harrison set aside the first “forest reserves” from these unclaimed lands in 1891, to protect the mountain headwaters of major rivers that supplied navigation and irrigation. Between 1901 and 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded these reserves, now known as the national forests, to almost 148 million acres. Later, as unclaimed rangelands were severely overgrazed, the Bureau of Land Management was created to restore and oversee 245 million acres of that unclaimed land, which included millions of heavily degraded acres abandoned by homesteaders who had tried and failed to make them produce enough crops or livestock to survive. We were left with 640 million acres of public land—land that has become the cornerstone of American outdoor recreation and represents the best public hunting and fishing country in the world.
From the beginning, the idea of a vast public estate, and especially Roosevelt’s dramatic expansion of the national forests, was greeted with unmitigated scorn by many powerful Westerners. The ruthless Gilded Age robber baron William A. Clark, who built his fortune on Montana’s timber and copper, was allied with Idaho’s Sen. Weldon B. Heyburn and Colorado’s Rep. Herschel M. Hogg, a mining magnate, to block every attempt at creating public lands or conserving natural resources of any kind. Clark often said, “Those who succeed us can well take care of themselves.”
The Move to Privatize
In the 1950s, as restoration efforts on BLM and U.S. Forest Service public lands began to improve grazing conditions and reestablish cutover forests, the movement to take these lands began to build. In 1955, the renowned Western historian Bernard DeVoto wrote that “the ultimate objective is to liquidate all public ownership of grazing and forest land in the United States…the plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually into private ownership.”
The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ’80s was sparked by changes in federal land-management policies mandated by Congress that, in part, required surveys of possible new wilderness areas and studies of the effects of grazing and timbering on wildlife, fish, and recreation. The Sagebrush Rebellion, whose supporters wanted more state and local control of those lands—if not actual transfer of the lands to the states, or outright privatization—had widespread support across the rural West. Even Ronald Reagan, on the campaign trail in Utah in 1980, claimed, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel.”
But the ranchers who were leading the movement began to recognize the possible consequences of individual states taking over management of federal lands. The repercussions would have included the most radical expansion of state government in history to deal with the administration of such marginally productive lands, as well as increased taxes to support it, grazing fees that would rise as much as tenfold, and finally, the inevitable sell-off of most of the lands to private interests that would almost certainly not include the Sagebrush Rebels. It would actually mean the end of small-scale ranching in the arid West.
The precedents then were as clear as spring water—and they are just as clear today:
• Nevada was given 2.7 million acres of federal land when it became a state in 1864. All but 3,000 acres of that has been sold off.
• Utah has already sold more than 50 percent of the lands granted to it at statehood.
• Idaho has sold off 41 percent of its state lands since gaining statehood in 1890, which equates to 13,500 acres per year going into private hands.
And the history of land under state ownership is not good. A report by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a national sportsmen’s conservation group, cites these figures:
• In Colorado, only 20 percent of state trust lands are open to the public for hunting and fishing.
• To help ease budget woes in Wisconsin, the state is currently in the process of selling off 10,000 acres of state-owned land.
• In Oregon, as timber revenue from it has declined, the state has been forced to auction off the 92,000-acre Elliot State Forest. Oregon was originally granted 3.4 million acres and has only 776,000 acres left.
• In Idaho, a European-esque hunt club has leased state land for exclusive hunting rights.
The Modern Land Grabbers
The new leaders of the so-called “divestiture movement” are not ranchers, at least not in the conventional sense. They are inspired by the work of theorists and political appointees like Terry L. Anderson, who wrote “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands” in 1999. They are men like Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, of the American Lands Council, a group advocating for the transfer of public lands to the states. Ivory, who sponsored legislation that would do just that, told reporters that the transfer of the lands was “like having your hands on the lever of a new Louisiana Purchase.” (Of course, in the Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. actually bought 827 million acres from France, paying $15 million. Ivory makes no mention of buying any public land from the American people who currently own and use it.)
Rep. Ivory is not a rancher. He represents the district of West Jordan, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, but he knows where the money is in American land. His group receives funding from Americans for Prosperity, the main political advocacy arm of Charles and David Koch, of Koch Industries. Ivory’s bill, the 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act, has been followed by similar bills in the legislatures of 10 Western states. The Utah legislature has passed a resolution to spend $14 million of Utah taxpayers’ money on a lawsuit against the federal government, demanding transfer of all public lands within the state.
“The difference between the land grabbers today and in past years is that they are much more organized than ever before. There is a lot more money behind them than there ever has been,” says Land Tawney, the executive director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
The public lands that were once viewed as useless have now attained fantastic value, on a planet of 7.3 billion people, in the fastest- growing developed nation on earth. Dramatic, huge-scale private land holdings across the nation have become the norm, from the recent purchase of 330,000 acres of ranchland in the Missouri Breaks of Montana by the Texas-based Wilks brothers, to Ted Turner’s 2 million acres, the Koch brothers’ 200,000- acre Montana ranch, or the Mormon Church’s ownership of 650,000 acres in Florida and a 201,000-acre ranch along the Wyoming-Utah border. There is little doubt that there would be a huge demand for U.S. public lands, both from our own wealthy residents, from investors, and from resource- stressed nations like Saudi Arabia and China.
Basic natural resources are most at risk. “Think about the water we’d lose access to if these lands were privatized—70 percent of the headwaters of our streams and rivers in the West are on public lands,” Tawney says. “That is why the lands were set aside in the first place. We knew that under federal management we’d be able to harvest timber and still protect the water resources. With private ownership, there was no guarantee.”
And “no guarantee” applies to hunting and fishing, too, Tawney says. “The transfer of these lands to state control would change American hunting forever. State lands have an entirely different set of rules for management. And private lands are mostly not accessible for the average hunter. The experiment, unique to our country, where the fish and wildlife and the public lands belong to the people, well, that would be the end of that.”
For Randy Newberg, whose TV shows On Your Own Adventures and Fresh Tracks are based on nonguided public-lands hunting, the transfer or privatization of public lands is what he calls a “cold dead hands” issue. “I will never give up fighting this terrible idea,” says Newberg, who has represented hunters in Congress and state legislatures. “For me, America without public lands is no longer America.”
The way to fight it? Contact your congressional representatives. “Tell them you want no part in these schemes to transfer or get rid of our public lands,” says Land Tawney. “The system works. Your voice still counts as an American. But only if you use it.”