"Welfare queens" with guns

© Jim Urquhart / ReutersIf the current standoff, such as it is, in Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has caused you to consider that there may be more going on than just an isolated, impotent bit of disgruntlement among some western ranchers and gun-toting malcontents, well, you're right, there is. The Bundy Ranch standoff of almost two years ago lends enough foundational context to bolster this speculation, even without any in-depth knowledge of the history, or existence, of this somewhat fractured, but altogether predictable (human nature, you know), ideology. Yep, there's something going on, and it's been going on for a while.

It can be astonishing to many, especially those of us who accept the idea of public land ownership as an inarguable necessity for the protection of all sorts of human requirements (not the least of which is breathable air and drinkable water), that there are people who think this is a bad idea. And it can also be tempting to think of the actors in cases such as the Malheur takeover as frustrated bullies or ignorant rednecks straight out of Li'l Abner. The Bundy family certainly does little to discourage this appraisal. But you don't have to look very far back in our history to see that these acts represent more than just transient whims and disaffections. The (first) Sagebrush Rebellion, a Western states movement to change federal land policy so that much of it would be transferred to state control, happened just four decades ago. It was a reflection of the ongoing state/federal balance of powers philosophical struggle, to be sure. But it also began to include a lot of straight-up greed; both from small, western landholders who wanted to continue their subsidized use of public lands for cheap grazing and other benefits, as well as from corporate and political entities that sought extraction rights and profits.

Ostensibly, the push from some of these local politicians comes from the desire to boost western state economies. And at first blush that seems like a reasonable argument. But Josh Seitz, a history professor, in an article on Politico, fleshes out a little of the history behind this movement, and puts in perspective the argument about to whom these lands actually belong.


"Constitutional huffing and puffing aside, residents in states like Oregon and Utah have zero legal rights to the land they are trying to claim. The act declaring Utah’s statehood, for example—just like legislation granting statehood to other territories in the 19th and 20th centuries—stipulates that its Legislature “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.” In fact, the land that these ranchers call their own belongs to the entire country—to school teachers in New York and shipbuilders in Virginia as much as to ranchers in Oregon."

The Sagebrush Rebellion morphed into the "Wise-use" movement in the eighties, and has persisted 'til today, especially in certain parts of the western U.S. (I'm looking right at you, Utah). And as Seitz mentions in his piece, some are starting to call this latest upwelling of activity from these self-professed freedom-fighters the Second Sagebrush Rebellion.


"Sagebrush rebels aren’t unique in their tight perspective. It rarely occurs to middle-class opponents of food stamps that home mortgage deductions (which economists label “tax expenditures”) are another form of entitlement spending, just as many wealthy investors wear an expression of genuine befuddlement at the suggestion that the carried-interest rule is a form of welfare."

Those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists and wilderness advocates must make no mistake about the intentions of this movement. They mean to dismantle western wilderness. It's possible that a lot of the individuals, the ranchers, the farmers, etc., think mostly in terms of their own limited concerns and would probably consider themselves good stewards of the land. But when they band together with others like themselves and organized political groups they stand for something that is not at all good for the land - the elevation of short-lived personal privilege over long-term public good. When state legislators want federal lands handed over for resource extraction they are indulging in anything but wise use. When ranchers refuse to pay grazing fees (that are already heavily subsidized) under the banner of states rights they are papering over their greed with flimsy rhetoric.

And when an armed group of protesters takes over public facilities to demand the transfer of all national park lands to state control, we need to call the cowboy-hatted, flannel-shirted crowd what it is: a wild-west welfare lobby.