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Tomgram: William deBuys, No More Wide Open Spaces?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

One summer 43 years ago, I headed west with a photographer friend, interviewing Americans at minor league baseball parks, fairgrounds, tourist spots, campgrounds, wherever the moment and our Volkswagen van took us. Grandiosely enough, our goal was "to tap the mood of the nation," which led to my first book, Beyond Our Control: America in the Mid Seventies. Looking back, I now realize that, in 1973, three decades ahead of schedule, we met the precursors to the Tea Party movement, angry and unnerved white Americans of a certain age, camped out in their RVs and distinctly dyspeptic about where this country was going. This was a crowd, as I wrote at the time, that when it came to the lifestyles they had known and enjoyed could already "feel the tremors under their feet" and I predicted that one of these days they would be the ones to suffer. "You can bet," I observed, that "America's corporate pushers won't be going through the same sort of withdrawal pains as their victims." And I added, "What makes it so frightening is this: When these people find themselves desperate, they may panic and grab for the first help in sight, and I'm afraid to think what that will be." All these decades later, we may finally have a better idea of what that, in fact, is.

As it happened, for this born and bred New York City boy for whom Central Park was the wilderness, there was another unforgettable aspect of that journey from coast to coast. I saw up close and personal something of the West, of lands that seemed to stretch out toward eternity, that could take your breath away, and that, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys points out today, still -- though for how long we don't know -- belong to all of us. Of our visit to Yellowstone Park (where the warnings about grizzlies in the campgrounds touched off the panic button in this urbanite), I wrote:

"Early this afternoon, we rested by a lake and watched a Swainson's hawk hover and hunt, all its energy focused on a few yards of field. Suddenly, it plummeted out of sight, rose with a field mouse in its claws and was gone. Yellowstone's been like that, just the opposite of our expectations. Gigantic, wild-looking, beautiful. The roads don't even dent it, at least in the eastern part where we've come in. Strangest of all, it's not crawling with people. We didn't see anybody until we pulled into the parking lot of the Hamilton General Store."

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And here's a small miracle: in this era of privatization -- even the military now goes into its war zones with a set of corporate warriors in tow -- those awesome American lands are still ours, still public. My children can still spend time in them and appreciate a world they would otherwise have no access to. But my grandson when he grows up? Who knows? As deBuys makes clear today, behind the latest wing-nuts of the American West lie corporate interests that, in this age of growing inequality, might someday take part in one of the great land grabs of modern times. Fortunately, there are still writers like deBuys to remind us of just what's at stake. Tom

Privatizing America's Public Land
How the Raid on Malheur Screened a Future Raid on Real Estate
By William deBuys

It goes without saying that in a democracy everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. The trouble starts when people think they are also entitled to their own facts.

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Away out West, on the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands that most Americans take for granted (if they are aware of them at all), the trouble is deep, widespread, and won't soon go away. Last winter's armed take-over and 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a case in point. It was carried out by people who, if they hadn't been white and dressed as cowboys, might have been called "terrorists" and treated as such. Their interpretation of the history of western lands and of the judicial basis for federal land ownership -- or at least that of their leaders, since they weren't exactly a band of intellectuals -- was only loosely linked to reality.

At least some of them took inspiration from the notion that Jesus Christ wrote the Constitution (which would be news to the Deists, like James Madison, who were its actual authors) and that it prohibits federal ownership of any land excepting administrative sites within the United States -- a contention that more than two centuries of American jurisprudence has emphatically repudiated.

The troubling thing is that similar delusions infect pockets of unrest throughout the West, lending a kind of twisted legitimacy to efforts at both the state and national level to transfer western public lands to states and counties. To be sure, not all the proponents of this liquidation of America's national patrimony subscribe to wing-nut doctrines; sometimes they just use them.

Greed can suffice to motivate those who lust for the real estate bonanzas and resource giveaways that would result if states gained title to, say, the 264 million acres presently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). General combativeness and hostility toward government also play their roles, and the usual right-wing mega-donors, including the Koch brothers, pump money into a bewildering array of agitator groups to help keep the fires of resentment burning.

The louder the drum chant of crazy "facts" gets, the more the Alice-in-Wonderland logic behind them threatens to seize the popular narrative about America's public lands -- how they came to be and what they represent. This, in turn, prepares the way for the betrayal of one of the nation's deepest traditions and for the loss of yet more of its natural heritage. Conversely, those who value American public lands have been laggard in articulating an updated vision for those open spaces appropriate to the twenty-first century and capable of expressing what the unsettled "fruited plains" and "purple mountain majesties" of the West still mean for our national experience and our capacity to meet the challenges of the future.

The Malice at Malheur

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The leaders of the Malheur occupation, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and public lands scofflaw who gained notoriety two years ago following a standoff with federal law enforcement officers. Back in the 1990s, the elder Bundy had stopped paying grazing fees, claiming that the federal government had no authority to regulate the public lands where his cattle fed. In 2014, with Bundy $1.1 million in arrears and his grazing permits transferred to the local county government, the Bureau of Land Management moved to round up and confiscate his 400 head of cattle.

Via social media, Bundy appealed to militia and "patriot" groups for support, and hundreds of armed resisters rallied to his ranch 90 miles north of Las Vegas. When the ensuing showdown threatened to become a bloodbath like the Waco siege of 1993, the authorities withdrew.

The government's retreat and its failure to arrest members of the Bundy family or their allies for acts of armed resistance set the stage for the Malheur takeover, but the roots of the incident go back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s and the Wise Use Movement that succeeded it. The Sagebrush Rebellion was triggered by a national inventory of public lands to identify areas appropriate for designation as "wilderness" (under the National Wilderness Preservation System). Its advocates also protested the enforcement of government protections for archaeological sites and endangered species. Wise Use groups echoed those complaints and essentially argued against anything the environmental movement was for, urging the amped-up exploitation of natural resources on western lands.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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