They seized land that belongs to you, and now you can’t go there

Chris Clarke points out that we don’t really even need a lot of deep background on the armed men occupying Malheur Wildlife Refuge. What they’re doing is stark enough on its own.

Actions speak louder than words, as they say, and in this case the group’s action says it all. They seized land that belongs to you, and now you can’t go there. And they say they’re just getting started.

I suppose this would be more obvious if they had seized the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone, but it wouldn’t be fundamentally different. It’s public land, and they’ve grabbed it, and now we can’t go there. I once knew a dedicated birder who spent two weeks there, his entire annual vacation from his job as a zookeeper.

The Malheur militants want a system of special rights for ranchers, and the rest of us can just butt out. Ammon Bundy says the Malheur NWR should be disbanded, and its lands handed over to a preselected group of local ranchers for their own use and enjoyment. They would establish Roman-Empire-style latifundia across the west, extensive tracts of essentially private land where a few families reap the benefits of public subsidies, and the public that pays those subsidies isn’t welcome.

It’s the familiar whimsical US version of socialism, i.e. socialism for the rich. We bail out the bankers after they destroy the global economy, but they don’t bail us out even when it’s our life savings they swallowed.

The Malheur occupation is taking place in a larger context. In addition to Bundy senior’s ongoing resistance to paying his bills, there are increasing calls to privatize public lands all over the West. Some of those calls are coming from people who have clearly spent too much time reading Infowars, but some come from well-heeled representatives of the foundation-funded right.

Chris discusses the history of land and ownership in the US, from the fact that it was all grabbed from the original occupants to the perversities and otherwise of the Homestead Act.

But despite a few sales by the railroad companies, and the above-mentioned Homestead Act violations, ranchers continue to this day to rely on public lands. As essayist Bernard DeVoto put it in his 1947 Harpers’ piece The West Against Itself,

The Cattle Kingdom never did own more than a minute fraction of one per cent of the range it grazed: it was national domain, it belonged to the people of the United States. They do not own the range now: mostly it belongs to you and me, and since the fees they pay for using public land are much smaller than those they pay for using private land, those fees are in effect one of a number of subsidies we pay them. But they always acted as if they owned the public range and act so now; they convinced themselves that it belonged to them and now believe it does; and they are trying to take title to it.

I wonder how they managed to convince themselves it belonged to them. Something about the American passion for the hamburger, is it?

It’s long been a truism that no industrial sector has been so coddled, with so little economic benefit in return, as public lands livestock grazers. The entire public lands ranching industry generates just three percent of the beef produced in the U.S., and accounts for less than one percent of either jobs or income even in ranch-heavy states like Wyoming and Montana.

That’s despite significant federal subsidies. In 2016, it costs $1.69 a month to graze a cow and calf on BLM or Forest Service lands. That’s somewhere around a sixth of what it costs the Feds to administer the grazing program, and as little as a tenth what ranchers pay for their livestock to graze on private lands.

The Federal government also spends an undisclosed amount — certainly well into the millions of dollars each year — on killing predators ranchers fear may be targeting their livestock, said campaign being administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division.


Ammon Bundy and the rest of his band seem stuck back in a 19th Century that never actually happened, where ranchers are “the people” and the actual people who might want to hike, camp, or watch birds on land they own are considered jackbooted thugs, good only for paying the bills and then staying away, carefully keeping to the front side of the No Trespassing sign.

As it happens, the socialist songwriter who penned This Land Is Your Land had something to say about that. Most of us learn just the first two verses of that song in grade school, but there are many, and one of them goes like this:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

At least as long as we’re paying the bills.

And buying the burgers.

2 Responses to “They seized land that belongs to you, and now you can’t go there”