15 Jan 2016 Oregon Standoff is Just a Symptom of a Much Larger Problem Congress Can Help Fix
National Center for Public Policy Research Calls for Three-Step Plan to Help Relieve the Rural West
Washington, D.C. – As the country continues to focus on the ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, the National Center for Public Policy Research reminds federal elected officials in Washington that the standoff follows decades of public dissatisfaction with federal land management policies, particularly in the West, yet Congress after Congress and presidents of both parties have largely ignored federal land issues.
The federal government should take specific actions to reduce citizen dissatisfaction with federal policies, the National Center says. Among them:
- Congress should enact a prohibition on additional federal land acquisitions. The federal government already controls a substantial percentage of western land and too many disputes with local landowners and communities have at least in part been caused by federal agencies seeking to expand federal land ownership and control. At this point additional land acquisitions are unnecessary, and a moratorium on additional acquisitions would eliminate this source of dispute.
- Congress should develop and impose a specific plan for the sale to the private sector or transfer to the states of a significant portion of federal lands. The federal government has a multi-billion dollar — perhaps 20 billion or more — backlog in maintenance for federal lands it controls now. Shedding some of these properties would permit the federal government to do a better job managing its most valued properties while increasing local control over local land.
- President Obama should acknowledge that federal agencies bear some responsibility for citizen frustration with federal land management practices and should commute the additional sentences of Dwight and Steven Hammond. Such an action would not only bring justice to the Hammonds, but also signal that the executive branch is aware that it needs to improve the way it manages federal lands and interacts with citizens on land issues.
“The injustice that has befallen the Hammond family in Oregon is symptomatic of the larger problem of massive federal ownership of land throughout the rural West,” said Bonner Cohen, Ph.D., senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Farmers and ranchers in the West are subjected to the whims of federal bureaucrats, who lord over the region like an occupying power. But the relentless harassment of hard-working families is only part of the story. All Americans suffer when the country is denied access to the valuable natural resources locked up on or beneath millions of acres of federal land. The best stewards of the land are the people who own it, people whose livelihoods are dependent on responsible stewardship of their property. It is time to end the rural West’s colonial status by getting the feds off the land, and selling that land to willing buyers.”
The National Center also says Congress should immediately convene extensive hearings to hear from dissatisfied citizens as well as employees of federal land management agencies. The hearings, which should last weeks if not months, should have the goal of educating Members of Congress about lands issues too few of them know anything about, as well as members of the public.
“One reason these disputes escalate is that people feel powerless,” said Amy Ridenour, chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Most of these issues arise in low-population areas in which a small number of citizens feel outgunned by the powerful federal government. Few people in cities and suburbs; indeed, hardly anyone east of the Mississippi, is even aware of these disputes. Yet these agencies are acting in our name and these landowners are our fellow citizens. Extensive Congressional hearings would be a first step in bringing us all together to fix these problems, but hearings are only a necessary first step.”
“We call upon President Obama to commute the sentences of Dwight and Steven Hammond, not to give in to protestors but to do the right thing,” said David Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research. “The Hammonds lit fires to be good stewards of the land. In return, they were prosecuted under a federal statute designed to punish domestic terrorists.
“The basis of the crimes are that the Hammonds didn’t adequately coordinate with the BLM,” added David Ridenour. “But how can one coordinate with an agency that’s shown nothing but hostility toward you? The BLM is solely to blame for the communication breakdown. The president recently said on another issue that he knows ‘we can’t stop every… act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil.’ He has it in his power to stop this act of evil… by using that pen he’s talked so much about.”
National Center Senior Fellow R.J. Smith added the following statement:
Media attention on the plight of the Hammond family in Burns, Oregon — sent to prison as “terrorists” for starting small fires on their ranchland to prevent wildfires and to control invasive plants on grazing land — has focused more on the activities of some who have come to their “support” than on the root cause of the broad unhappiness with the federal government.
Ranchers, farmers, foresters and miners settled and homesteaded the West, often before government reached that far, or statehood, or counties were created. These landowners are today surrounded by a sea of federal lands. Across the West over half of all the land and resources are owned by the government. 53% in Oregon and 75% in Harney County. The federal government owns 85% of the state of Nevada and 64% of both Utah and Idaho, effectively making rural landowners little more than serfs, and precluding utilization of natural resources, reducing the tax base and impoverishing local and county governments. This is not the case in the Midwest and the East where most of the land is owned privately.
Evermore-onerous government regulations make it difficult for the landowners to use their lands and often next-to-impossible to cross the government lands on historic rights-of-way for access to water and grazing lands.
Yet even with this hegemonic control of the rural West, the federal government continues to acquire more land. Many see this as similar to the plight of the English when the king owned the forests, the lands and the wildlife. It also builds on the widespread Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, during which state governments and legislatures demanded a return of their land and resources and equality with states in the East. That opposition to government ownership was tempered by the Reagan Administration’s easing of the regulatory regime.
But as the government has accelerated its efforts to acquire more land and to force people off their lands, mounting opposition and calls for change have flourished.
It is well past time to place a moratorium on any additional land acquisition by the federal government, to undertake an inventory of government landownership at all levels, and to begin taking steps toward a devolution of federal ownership and to return the lands and resources to responsible and caring ownership and stewardship. This would not threaten genuine environmental amenities and values. America has a long and noble tradition of successful private ownership of wildlife refuges, parks, and forests. If, for instance, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were owned by a conservation organization, such as an Audubon Society, it would not be able to bully and harass its farming and ranching neighbors who willingly share their lands with all the wildlife, but would have to deal with them in a legal and peaceful manner — while still protecting the wildlife.
The vision of America was to create a free society with the government protecting the people’s inalienable rights of life, liberty and property. It is time to make that dream come true.
“Congress has inadequately monitored the actions of federal land-management agencies for decades, ” concluded Amy Ridenour, “and successive presidential administrations have either encouraged abuses or looked the other way. It’s time for our country to stop pretending we don’t have a problem.”
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