F&S Classics: The Biggest Ripoff

Long before #KeepItPublic was a hashtag, the author was advocating to keep public lands public

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “The Biggest Ripoff” by Ted Trueblood, first appeared in the November 1982 issue. The politicians in this conservation column may no longer be in the picture—but the “Keep It Public” message in Trueblood’s words is as resonant as ever.

It started as the Sagebrush Rebellion and it has now grown into what will be the biggest ripoff in American history—if it succeeds. And it will succeed unless the victims, the American people, raise such a hue and cry as never has been raised before. It is the proposed selloff or “privatization” of the public lands, both the national forests and the range lands now under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.

All these lands belong to all of us, to you and me, and if they were divided up each of us would receive a little more than 2 acres. They hold incredible wealth in timber, grazing, and minerals. That’s the reason why the sharpies want them, of course, and it explains the repeated attempts to steal them in the past. But never before did the would-be thieves have the wholehearted backing of a national administration as they have today.

The real plot was slow in coming into the open and only this fall did it finally emerge in its true form. It has been concealed by double-speak, lies, subterfuge, and smooth-talking advocates who seek to rob the American people of their great land heritage before they are aware.

Why should we, as sportsmen, care? Maybe the country would be better off if all this land were privately owned and paying taxes. That’s not true, though it’s a common argument. There are many sound economic reasons for keeping the public land public, but here I intend to discuss only the recreational value of the public lands. This value is never mentioned by the wheeler-dealers. In fact, they’d be much happier if the American public could be kept completely unaware

Excluding the national forests, because everybody realizes they are the home of deer, elk, moose, and other big game, plus upland birds ranging from turkeys to ptarmigan, plus fishing, I will give here only the latest available figures for fish and game on those so-called grazing lands managed by the BLM. These are the lands, except for Alaska, that the ripoff backers would have you believe are mostly worthless desert.

In Public Land Statistics, published by the Bureau of Land Management in 1974, I find the following estimates:

Antelope, 172,026; wolves, 5,400, bears, 32,238; wild sheep. 44,479; bison 762; caribou, 442,000; deer, 1,436,055; elk, 53,925; javelinas, 1,940; moose, 101,565; and mountain goats, 5,375. Total 2,295,765! And the BLM didn’t even try to estimate cougars, which are becoming more and more an important game animal.

They didn’t attempt to estimate the number of fur-bearers ranging from beavers to bobcats, either, nor did they mention the great variety of small game and upland birds. Within a day’s drive of my home in southern Idaho there are six kinds of upland birds on the public lands and this doesn’t include the turkeys and three kinds of grouse in nearby national forests, nor the pheasants that wander into the sagebrush from the irrigated cropland it borders.

These same public lands (again excluding national forests) have 261,000 miles of fishing streams, 386,000 acres of fish-producing reservoirs, and nearly 5 million acres of fish-producing lakes And incredible as it may seem, lands administered by the BLM include more than 65 million acres of waterfowl habitat!

Fishing and hunting are only the beginning of the recreational potential of the public lands and national forests. I have friends who enjoy one or the other almost weekly, yet they neither hunt nor fish. They camp, take pictures, hunt rocks, ride horses or ORV’s, ski, or simply drive around enjoying the scenery, wildlife, and the poor but uncrowded roads, and likely picnicking somewhere before they turn homeward.

And don’t think for a moment that the only users of the public lands are the Westerners who live near them. Remember, they belong as much to Bob Latimer, of Muncy, Pennsylvania, as they do to me, even though half an hour’s drive will put me on the land that belongs to all of us. Bob enjoyed the freedom of the public lands this year on a fishing trip to Montana and he has enjoyed it in the past. Even though most of the public land is in the eleven Western states and Alaska, they are being used more and more each year by Americans who live east of the 100th meridian.

The last attempted land steal prior to this one occurred in the 1940′s, but it was not engineered nearly so smoothly nor did it have the big money. The energy crunch was far down the road and the billions of tons of coal that lie under the Montana and Wyoming prairies were ignored. The uranium rush was out of sight in the future as was the demand for oil shale and oil sands. Water, that most precious of all Western resources, was in plentiful supply. The attempted land grab was backed primarily by a gang of greedy stockmen who eventually got their ears batted down by an outraged public. This time it was different.

The Sagebrush Rebellion began with a bill introduced by Assemblyman Dean Rhoades in the Nevada Legislature in 1979. It demanded a change of title for the public lands in Nevada from the federal government (us) to the state. It passed, and in ensuing months several other Western states followed suit. All of these bills called for transfer of the public lands from federal to state ownership

But in the meantime, strong opposition by conservation and sportsmen’s groups sprang up throughout the West, and all the major national conservation organizations joined the fight. They were quick to see that the loss of the public land—our land—would be the disaster of the century. And nobody with a lick of sense believed that a transfer would stop with the states, we felt sure the land would eventually wind up in private ownership. In fact, a few of the sagebrush rebels admitted as much, but mostly they were as cagey as a big brown trout eyeballing a dry fly on smooth water

Of course, everybody knew that a state’s passing a bill to take over the public land within her borders didn’t make it happen; that would take an act of Congress. The intent of the Sagebrush Rebellion was to stir up enough public pressure to pass such an act, but thanks to concerned outdoorsmen it didn’t succeed. Public determination to keep the land in public ownership was overwhelming.

Then came November 1980.

We innocents who had been fighting the Sagebrush Rebellion didn’t realize at first what a disaster that election was The Reagan “landslide” not only put a man in the White House whose ideas of resource management are circa 1880, but it also swept into office a horde of ultra-conservative lawmakers who gained control of the Senate and nearly won that of the House.

The sagebrushers had been smarter than we were. November was not yet over when they held a massive conference (celebration) in Salt Lake City. It was sponsored by the League for the Advancement of the States’ Equal Rights (LASER). The heavyweights backing LASER have never been named, but the powwow reputedly cost $160,000. And the tipoff came when President-Elect Reagan sent the following telegram to Dean Rhoades, father of the Sagebrush Rebellion, at the LASER meeting:

“Please convey my best wishes to my fellow ‘sagebrush rebels. From my personal contact with you as well as others attending the LASER conference, I’m confident the conference will be produce tive. I renew my pledge to work toward a ‘sagebrush solution.’ My Administration will work to insure that the states have an equitable share of the public lands and their natural resources. To all, good luck and thanks for your support—Ronald Reagan, Washington, D.C., November 20, 1980.”

It was news to make us cry. Not only did we have a sagebrusher in the White House, but in the shifting after the election sagebrushers had gained many of the key committee chairmanships in the Senate. And there wasn’t a darned thing we could do until the President made the first move.

It wasn’t long in coming. He appointed James G Watt Secretary of the Interior. Now, Interior is the conservation department of the federal government. Under the broad wings of Interior are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Mines, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the Office of Water Research, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Appointing Watt to head Interior was like finding a gopher snake to guard a nest of baby mice. At the time of his appointment, Watt was head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which he founded. Its sole purpose, in the courts and out, was to oppose the government on any ruling or regulation that might delay the exploitation of our natural resources. It was supported by resource users— exploiters is a better word—among them oil, coal, mining companies, and utilities.

Watt was their and the President’s advocate. Did he have a change of heart when he suddenly became responsible to all the people instead of only to special interests? He did not. Instead, he did exactly what “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all Reagan expected him to do. He started wrecking Interior. Helped by the Reagan budget, which treated the natural resource agencies like adopted children, he made sure that most of them would be unable to do the jobs they were supposed to on the public’s behalf.

It is impossible in an article this length to list all of Watt’s damaging actions within the Department of the Interior, but what happened to the Office of Surface Mining is a good example. With strip mining growing like Topsy, more authority was turned over to the states, and the number of federal inspectors was reduced from the former 110 to 69. And its new director, James R. Harris, is buddy-buddy with the coal companies.

And it’s not just Watt. Every department and agency within the federal government that has to do with natural resources is getting the same treatment. The United States Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture is now under the direction of John B. Crowell, a logging company attorney, and the emphasis has shifted from multiple use and sustained yield to timber production first and last. For an accurate account of what has happened to the Environmental Protection Agency, read George Reiger’s Conservation Department in the September issue of Field & Stream.

Meanwhile, with these and a hundred other resource-damaging actions going on, plans for the big ripoff were moving quietly ahead. From time to time, one or another Administration mouthpiece made a low-key suggestion that maybe transfer of the public lands to the states wasn’t really necessary, that perhaps it would be just as well to sell “certain small parcels” directly to the private sector

Nobody could object to that. After all, the government owns old post offices, old military parade grounds, and other odd bits of property here and there that are only an expense and are doing nobody any good.

Then on February 25, 1982, the President appointed a Property Review Board. The members were all his boys, as you might guess. Among other get-rid-of-it duties, the Board is to establish for each executive agency annually the target amount of its real property holdings to be identified as excess…”

Members and staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers had been talking cautiously for months about a massive selloff of the public lands. Now they had the instrument to start it moving

The Reagan budget included an anticipated $1 billion from sale of lands held by the General Services Administration during the next fiscal year. After that, the Administration proposes to sell S4 billion-a-year worth of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. That’s not exactly “bits and parcels.”

Actually, two plans were under consideration by the ripoff artists. One was outright sale. The other is a scheme to “privatize” the public land. This concept calls for selling commercial rights on both national forest and BLM lands to commercial users. For example, grazing rights would be sold to the present grazing allotment holder. Oil and gas rights would be sold to oil and gas lease holders. Timber rights would be sold to logging companies. Then the land would be transferred to the states, which would have authority over recreation and wildlife.

Big deal! I don’t have to tell you where Joe Hunter would come in. But not to worry. According to the BLM NEWS for Oregon and Washington: “The Bureau of Land Management’s Director, Robert B. Burford, has allayed fears of sportsmen that proposed sale of some federal lands might affect outdoor recreation.”

Burford, an old sagebrusher and Watt crony, was addressing the annual meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America in late June. He added, “of course, we have no legal basis for retaining hunting rights on lands that are sold, but we will work to assure that lands being offered cannot be used to block access to other federal lands.”

Again, big deal!

What can we do? The only thing I can suggest is to elect Congressmen and Senators whose first concern is the public they’re supposed to represent, not the special interests.