Federal Lands Belong to All of Us – Whether In Oregon, Alaska, or Elsewhere, February 5, 2016
Something very anti-American has been happening in our nation. The bonds that have traditionally held us together are popping loose here and there. To my way of thinking, not enough of us – particularly those who claim social leadership – have been speaking out in alarm.
I’d like to.
I’m referring to the foundational covenants of our country. Specifically, the idea of “We the People,” and our collective deed to parks and rivers and refuges – these public-land holdings that are a cornerstone of the American experience that we all share, that we hold in trust for future generations. Let me focus on National Wildlife Refuges, because, for the first time in a long time, they’ve been on the front page – albeit for the wrong reasons.
Who owns these 100 million acres of wildlife habitat?
That’s easy. They teach it everywhere from grade school to grad school. We all do. We the people.
But now, if you listen to a few outlaw cowboys in Idaho, Nevada, and other points West, they’ll tell you, No. It belongs to them, whoever they are. Not you. Them. To do as they please.
There shouldn’t be much fuss about this matter, really. The so-called “sagebrush rebellion” has been an episodic and overblown phenomenon in the West for 40 years.
But I’ve been growing more concerned. I think we should worry when much of our news media and too much of our political leadership takes these criminals at least partly seriously. Their recent “occupation” of Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was seldom characterized correctly as an act of protest against the conviction of arsonists covering up their poaching, but rather portrayed as the narrative of righteous lads with big belt buckles and fancy hats standing up, Alamo-style, to speak out against a villainous federal government.
The Malheur “uprising” seems to have finally fizzled, and the lads with the big hats are facing some unhappy days in the courthouse.
But the anti-government sentiment still simmers. And too often the “We the People” part of these stories is left for grade-school teachers. Right now, the battleground over “your” national wildlife refuges has shifted to Alaska. There, it’s not a matter of a dozen cowboys with sugar-plum fantasies of John Wayne in their little heads; it’s the state government that proposes to take your deed to these refuges and flush it down the toilet.
I was fascinated, not to say dismayed, this week to read a news story about a bill moving through the state legislature in Juneau that “demands” the U.S. government relinquish all deed to all of the state’s “federally owned land” to Alaska. Including National Wildlife Refuges.
The news story further reported that lawmakers know full well that such a land-grab would be unconstitutional. But pandering to special interests knows no bounds in some places.
And Alaska’s federal lawmakers are getting in on the act, too. They don’t much like a recent proposed rulemaking by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, developed by managers of Alaska’s refuges, to manage animals within refuge boundaries in the interests of wildlife and with concern for those who enjoy – or appreciate – them on our collective lands. The idea behind the proposed federal rule is not to stop hunting, but merely to curb some truly awful abuses of wildlife and to state some common-sense rules that really shouldn’t provide much argument when it comes to the rights and wrongs of hunting.
This rule would prohibit the killing of brown bears with bait. Good lord, no Alaska hunter worthy of the name should argue on behalf of money-hungry guides who want to set out bait so they can promise busy millionaire outsiders a quick, easy weekend kill for the trophy room.
Another element of the rule would bar hunters from spotting bears from an airplane, landing close-by, and shooting them. Instead, the hunter would have to wait 24 hours. Most Alaska hunters, I’ll wager, and certainly a majority of us Americans who hold deed to these refuges, don’t think we need to deploy air strikes on bears.
And mind you, these are behaviors in question on a national wildlife refuge? If we don’t protect these creatures on a “refuge” from these unsporting and indeed sickening behaviors, where would we provide some safeguards?
Alaska’s junior U.S. Senator, Dan Sullivan, recently pushed through an amendment to a “Sportsmen’s package” in Congress to block any final action from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make this rule final – a rule grounded in the idea of the common good and sportsmanship and fair use and most basic protections for wildlife. He’s not speaking for all Alaskans in pushing this action, since we know that many Alaskans oppose land-and-shoot hunting, baiting, and denning of wolves.
I’ll be writing more about these rules and Alaska’s pandering response.
But for now, I want to make the case as strongly as I can that the “we” in We the People are you, me, our neighbors, and our friends. The millions of us who work, pay taxes, and honor our responsibilities.
We would not tolerate some band of thugs deciding to appropriate Central Park from public ownership, or Yosemite, or LAX airport. We wouldn’t entertain a debate over whether the Bundys should be grazing cattle on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
And we need to stop accepting the idea that these Bundy-esque contests, these Alaska showdowns, are between people and some vague oppressor institution. Unfortunately, that’s too often where we find ourselves now after 35 years of political mau-mauing about government as something apart from the “we.” It’s not. Read the first three words of the Constitution. The refuges are ours. It’s un-American to say, or think, otherwise.
How government manages public resources in the public interest – that’s a legitimate subject for debate. In that vein, I could offer 20 good arguments for conservative management of national wildlife refuges – but the most important two are (a) for the wildlife who live there and (b) for those of us who care about them.
And when it comes to the specifics of management, I’ll take the word of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the ravings of the Bundy folks, or the Alaska pols who too conveniently forget about our noble tradition of federal land protection as a unique element of the American experience and character.