Friday, June 3, 2016

Attitudes about public land, on both sides of the Mississippi (Part I): Recalling public opinions about the Malheur siege

One thing that struck me about responses to the Bundy Bros. taking of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January was the East-West divide, that is, how attitudes seemed to differ broadly speaking between those who live on land taken from Native Americans hundreds of years ago (in the East) and those who work land taken from Native Americans somewhat more recently (think Lewis & Clark a mere 200 years ago and the Indian wars that ensued).  (On the siege of Malheur, read more here and here, plus embedded links.  Remember that many Westerners indicated dissatisfaction about their relations with the feds, even though they did not support the tactics of the Bundy militia.  Indeed, a new study reported by Montana Public Radio this past week indicates that conservation has strong bi-partisan strength in Montana).

Generally speaking, I am suggesting that East (and some left) coasters (including many liberal elites, progressives, members of the narrating classes--sorta' like myself) who ridicule ranchers for failing to appreciate the value of public land, wildlife, and wilderness are arguably hypocrites because no one is trying to manage "for public good" the land on which the east coasters live and from which they make a living.

Why is no one trying to manage that land on which the East coasters live?  As far as I can tell, there are two principal reasons: (1) because it is already urbanized, highly developed, worth so much more than "wilderness" and (2) because it was taken from American Indians more than four centuries ago--as if some statute of limitations has run on this expropriation such that it need not be acknowledged and has nothing to teach about nor any relevance to the agitation of ranchers in the West, ranchers seeking more control over the land that provides their livelihood.  In short, most land East of the Mississippi River was designated "private property" a long time ago, whereas that is true for relatively little of the West.

I recall a lot of rhetoric in January and February this year--including in comments to news stories about the Malheur siege--indicating that ranchers in the West just don't "get it."  That is, ranchers who rely on the BLM  and grazing rights to make a living and help supply the nation with food don't "get" the importance of public land, wildlife, bird watching, and wilderness generally.  They are being selfish for wanting more control over the land where they graze their cattle or sheep.

But when someone in Boston--or even San Francisco--ridicules ranchers for their failure to understand that this is federal land--it's "public land"--those coastal commentators are surely at least a bit hypocritical because no one is trying to take the land on which they make their living or otherwise threatening their livelihoods.  No one is proposing, for example, a massive set aside of public land in New York or Maryland or even Georgia or Mississippi. This makes it easier for East coast elites to roll their eyes at Westerners, but part of their rationalization in doing so is simply because a big chunk of the West--unlike the East--was retained by the federal government and never homesteaded/privatized.  You could view that as a highly salient distinction--or as an accident of history.  Either way, there is a dearth of empathy from coastal elites who want access to wilderness, but who don't have to cede any of their means of making a living to secure it.  In short, coastal folks don't really have any skin in this game, though they often have strong feelings about these issues.  Witness a Twitter exchange I found myself in the day following the siege of the Malheur Refuge:

Man on Twitter: “Imagine being so whacked out you think the *Bureau of Land Management* is the most tyrannical federal agency.”

I responded,  “That is a very metro centric perspective …”

Man on Twitter:  “how many American citizens has the BLM assassinated?

To this I responded, “not talking objective right or wrong; talking perspective”

To which my tweeting nemesis replied: “ so you agree that thinking the BLM is the most tyrannical agency is objectively wrong?”

My response: “Not even close to what I said.”

And before I could even zap off that last Tweet, he added, "(I grew up in the rural southwest by the way, I'm extremely familiar with the BLM)."

* * * 

So he got the last word.  It didn’t seem useful to try to continue the conversation.  You get the idea.  

Now, however, the designation of federal lands is on the agenda in the far East--in upstate Maine.  The proposed national park or national monument in Maine has gotten a lot of media attention in the past few weeks (see more here and here), which gives us a chance to see how things look when you put the shoe on the other foot.  I'll return to this topic in my next post.

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