My guest today is Andy Kerr, longtime Oregon conservationist and author, currently in DC as a consultant to various conservation groups in the Western United States. Welcome to OpEdNews, Andy.
JB: Many of us are aware that an armed group recently took over a wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon but we don't really get it. What's going on? What are they after?
AK: The small band of angry white men (AWMs), most wearing cowboy hats, converged on Harney County in hope of provoking either the federal government to give the federal public lands in Harney County to the county or have the county take the lands from the federal government. Harney County is about as large as the State of Massachusetts and 74%, or 4.8 million acres, of the county is owned by the federal government as national forests, national wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, special protection areas or other public lands. The AWMs first came in support of Dwight Hammond and his son Steve, who were convicted in federal court for intentionally setting fire to some federal public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The ranchers burned the BLM land, on which they hold a federal grazing permit, to promote grass production for their livestock. The Hammonds were soon to go back to prison to serve more time on their arson convictions after a federal appeals court ruled that the district court judge let them off too easy. The AWMs first demanded that the Harney County Sheriff protect the Hammonds from the federal government by jailing them locally. After the Hammonds rejected their offer of armed resistance and reported to prison the AWMs seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge while it was unoccupied. They say they will stay until their demands are met.
JB: Lots to talk about here. First of all, let's start with the community's response, at least according to the reports that I saw. Apparently, there are many locals who support these guys in the name of the ranchers. So, please talk to us about the validity of the AWM's desire to turn federal land over to local government or "the People". Couldn't that be a good thing in some ways?
AK: We are all the people. There are, at latest count, 320 million of us people, aka Americans. The people act through government, in this case the government of the United States of America. These are federal public lands that belong to all Americans. The citizens of Boston have no more right to carve up the USS Constitution for souvenirs or the citizens of Washington, DC to sell of the National Mall for condos than citizens of the rural American West have to clearcut, strip mine or cow-bomb, the federal public lands that belong to all Americans. "Locals" opposed the president of the day establishing of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona (T. Roosevelt, 1906) or the Grand Teton National Monument in Wyoming (F.D. Roosevelt, 1936). They later became national parks that the locals are quite happy with now. Often leaving matters to "local" government means blacks cannot vote, the poor starve, and the elderly have no Social Security. Grazing livestock on the public lands is subsidized by the federal taxpayers. In 2005, the General Accounting Office found that federal grazing receipts were $21 million, while the expenses were $140 million. Any grass or wildflowers that are consumed by a non-native bovine bulldozer are not available for bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, Rocky Mountain elk, greater sage-grouse or butterflies. It costs ranchers $1.45 to graze a 1,000-pound animal on the public lands. A house cat costs more to feed.
JB: Some fear that this movement of AWM is actually a subterfuge to further privatize our commons, in this case, federal parks and wildlife refuges. What's your take on this?
AK: A convergence of interests among disparate groups does not necessarily amount to a conspiracy. The AWMs are generally not rich and are angry because they are being left behind as the economy transforms and society evolves in ways that either scare and/or displease them. Another group motivated to want the transfer the federal estate to the private sector are rich white men (RWMs). The Koch Brothers disdain federal public lands because to them it represents big government. If history is any guide, if federal lands were given over to the states or counties, they would soon be given over to private interests. Local governments couldn't afford to match the subsidies to livestock grazing, logging and mining that the federal government now doles out for these lands. The states couldn't afford the even a fraction the management costs the federal government now incurs. Soon, the obvious choice would be to sell it to private parties. The parties with the deep pockets to buy will then want to maximize the return on their investment by exploiting the lands as fast as economically possible.
JB: That's pretty clear. Thanks. What do you project will happen now? How will this standoff resolve itself?
AK: Why don't you just ask me who is going to be the next President or how the stock market with do in 2016? I can only offer how I would like to see it resolved. My idealistic half prefers to see the government (federal and Harney County) blockade the wildlife refuge headquarters (only one roads passes in front of it and to the back is a very large lake at a very cold time of the year) and cut-off the electricity (yes, the water pipes will freeze and break, but that a reasonable cost to avoid violence). When the band of AWMs get hungry and/or enough, they can put down their guns and come out with their hands up. However, my pragmatic half (which in this case I hope prevails) hopes that Occupy Malheur comes to an end by the AWMs taking the county sheriff up on his pragmatic offer for a safe escort out of the federal compound and out of the county. Then the federal government should either bring criminal charges of trespass, damage to federal property and/or a civil complaint to recover monetary damages, if not both. Being a cowboy hat-wearing white male should not entitle one to a stay-out-of-jail card. The larger question is how to resolve putative motivations for the AWMs' tantrum.
JB: Got it. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?
AK: Like any big problem, there is not a simple solution. Ammon Bundy the chief instigator of Occupy Malheur, reads the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the federal government from owning any property outside the District of Columbia without the consent of the affected state. He's just wrong on that point and the U.S. Supreme Court has so found. Of course, he's also believes the Constitution is divinely inspired (perhaps he can explain why God changed his mind on prohibition), so any ruling by the Supremes won't be dispositive for him. We're always going to have idiots in this nation and tolerating their nonsense is a price of freedom. AWMs are angry because they are not getting their way. Some of them used to get their way and some never really have. As our economy globalizes and society diversifies so that white males have less power and wealth, there is a loss of white male privilege and many white males who aren't smart enough to exploit the vast amount of white male privilege that still accrues to them are very angry. It used to be that many in this country who didn't go beyond high school still could get a lower middle class wage--enough to have a house, a car and other symbols of the American dream. We are a rich enough country so that we don't have to leave anyone behind as the economy and society change. However, doing so will require making rich white males like the Koch Brothers less rich (and perhaps a bit more angry). Specifically, for the public lands ranchers who no longer can, or should, make a living that involves ranching on the public lands, the best thing to do is to buy out the grazing permits of those who would willingly relinquish them. The federal forage, which is just 2% of the nation's livestock feed, would be reallocated to prove ecosystem and watershed goods and services. Buying them out would allow them to coast into retirement (many are quite old and their kids aren't coming back to run the ranch), get out of debt, embark on a new enterprise, reconfigure their ranch operations to be just on private lands, etc. Voluntary federal grazing permit relinquishment is ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just and politically pragmatic.