The standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge is the latest, edgiest skirmish in a decades-old conflict over federal control of Western lands. It’s been a war, not always bloodless, that’s been fought in courts, on Capitol Hill and far out on the range.
Decades ago, the conflict was dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” In the 1990s, conservatives provocatively cited a “War on the West.” And with the federal government owning more than one-third of the land in states such as California, Idaho and Washington, future clashes are all but certain.
“There are problems with the federal bureaucracies, and people are going to chafe at changes in management practices,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s been going on forever.”
But DeFazio, a liberal who has nonetheless repeatedly sought compromise on vexing Western land disputes, also noted a flip side of federal ownership not always acknowledged by some vocal conservative activists: However frustrating, federal ownership brings benefits, too.
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“We are subsidizing grazing,” DeFazio noted as an example. “People are paying only a tiny fraction of what they would pay to use private land.”
There’s ongoing frictions. In Oregon, we’ve been having timber wars my entire time in Congress.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Nationwide, the federal government owns 640 million acres, or about 28 percent of the country’s land mass. It is not, however, evenly distributed, and consequently, neither is the political heat.
North Carolina and Florida, for instance, have only 12 percent and 8 percent of their land held by the federal government.
By contrast, 45 percent of California is federally owned, while half of Idaho and 53 percent of Oregon belong to such federal agencies as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. In other words, the sagebrush that fuels rebellion is a distinctly Western crop.
“I have seen what happens when overzealous bureaucrats and agencies go beyond the law to clamp down on people,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said on the House floor Tuesday. “I have seen what courts have done, and I have seen the time for Congress to act, and it has not.”
Walden represents Harney County, the high desert region in eastern Oregon thrust into the national spotlight on Sunday when armed anti-government protesters occupied an empty building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The armed protesters, calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, still occupy the building in an emergency now being responded to by the FBI. The protesters spun off from peaceful demonstrators who had rallied to support two Harney County ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond.
The Hammonds, who are father and son, have been ordered back to prison to serve longer terms following their conviction on arson charges.
“I know the Hammonds. I’ve known them, probably, for close to 20 years,” Walden said. “They are longtime, responsible ranchers.”
The Hammonds’ beef with the federal government is a complicated one, with conflicting accounts related by both sides, but in brief it encapsulates the benefits and the burdens of Western reliance on federal land.
Since the time when the phrase “Sagebrush Rebellion” was first coined, Westerners have complained that onerous federal rules and regulations have needlessly fenced them in.
Politically, the Western discontent empowered lawmakers such as Republican Richard Pombo, a young rancher from California’s San Joaquin Valley first elected in 1992, who rode the wave all the way to eventual chairmanship of the House Resources Committee.
Tellingly, Pombo titled a book he co-authored “This Land Is Our Land: How to End the War on Private Property.”
Equally telling, perhaps, was his eventual political fate. In 2006, with the deep financial support of environmental groups who opposed Pombo’s positions, Democrat Jerry McNerney toppled Pombo and has held the Stockton-based seat ever since.
Westwide grazing rights, timber harvesting, hard-rock mining, and water storage and deliveries all have been underwritten by the federal government’s low fees, cheap roads, absence of mining royalties and subsidized irrigation contract rates.
Through early 2013, for instance, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management charged some 21,000 livestock operators nationwide only $1.35 per animal unit month for using the public land. This was less than had been charged in 1993, and was considerably less than was charged on state or private lands.
“Generally, livestock producers who use federal lands want to keep fees low, while conservation groups and others believe fees should be increased,” the Congressional Research Service noted in a 2012 report.
But when the Clinton administration tried, with its first budget proposal in 1993, to raise grazing fees and boost payments from hard-rock mining, among other Western revisions, it got clobbered.