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Public lands are not the states’ to “take back,” but they may get them after all

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Originally Published in The Southern Utah Independent 07/09/17

While sitting at a campfire at a friend’s home this last spring, the subject of public lands came up — in particular, the discussion of what the current administration has planned for them. One particularly verbose and self-proclaimed member of the elite “pioneer stock” of Utah seemed a little discontented with the idea that there was even a discussion to be had on the matter.

“We need to take our damn land back.” He said.

This is a more-than-common sentiment on the topic among conservatives and pseudo-scholar constitution lovers. It is espoused as an obvious point of fact and generally accepted to be so with little debate. This is problematic for reasons we’ll discuss, but at the outset here, it is something that very much needs to be understood before taking to the task of preventing states from gaining control of federal lands.

Generalizations duly noted here, it is safe to say that many of the proponents for control of state lands lean towards a fundamentalist conservative worldview. With that in mind, perhaps an analogy of sorts could be drawn from someone they regard highly and authoritative on matters of conscience in an effort to begin a dialogue by first finding some common ground.

C. S. Lewis is perhaps one of the more notable and beloved theologians and advocates of the absoluteness of deity in the eyes of western Christian civilization. He wrote, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

By “philosophy,” he presumably meant “theology,” among perhaps other things. But the point is that it was not lost on him that it is imperative to bring to an argument upon matters of consequence, as much of the truth in facts as can be mustered at the time, else the argument itself is pointless. And he presumed in this statement that this precept was a universally transcendent one.

When it comes to the debate over public lands at present, and drawing from the example the boisterous Utah native presents, it should be said that an accurate understanding of history and laws regarding public lands must exist, if for no other reason than because inaccurate and ignorant ones must be answered.

And in this time and place in history, it is as important as ever, because, my friends, that inaccurate and ignorant paradigm may well prevail in a manner not thought possible until now.

Because until now, public lands, national monuments and parks, state trust lands, and environmental regulations and agencies have prevailed largely under the attacks of such ignorance because no matter what salvos of emotional appeal were lobbed at them, the courts were what they ran up against.

Legislators with ties to the extraction industry would rally causes of federal land being ceded to state control with the ardent support of their constituencies but would invariably only gain the loyalty of their supporters for their attempts. It was the courts that would stop them. Espousing without merit that the states are really the constitutional, legal, rightful owners of the U.S. public lands and portraying the ownership of land by the federal government as illegal and unconstitutional, these legislators would spend vast amounts of tax dollars mendaciously pursuing the agenda. And in spite of the failed outcome, which often their own offices of research and legislative councils would advise them of, they would consider it a successful loss. They may not have accomplished the goal, but they satisfied their ill-informed base that they had fought the good fight, often capitalizing on the fact that this very base did not know enough to know that they were being used for a corporate agenda.

It sounds appealing to the average supporter of this agenda that the federal government is out of control and has no right to the land it has taken. To these supporters, the land must be taken back at all costs.

This just simply does not align with facts.

The United States government owns 650 million acres of land. That is about 30 percent of the land area of the country. At one point early in its history, it owned all of the lands west of the original 13 states. Federal land ownership started when the original states ceded their “Western Land claims” in the decade beginning in 1781. Other than these Western lands claims, none of the original public domain was ever owned by states.

These lands cannot be “given back” to the states, because the states never had them in the first place.

U.S. acquisition of federal lands occurred mostly from 1803 to 1867, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and ending with the purchase of Alaska.

This is covered in the U.S. Constitution by the Property Clause (Article IV, section 3, clause 2), which reads, “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”

The Antiquities Act of 1906 followed the 1905 and earlier designations of national forests, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) is likely the most concrete and impenetrable legislation protecting federal lands. FLPMA repealed all land-disposal claims and made it national policy that from then on the general intent was to keep all the public lands. This is where the law regarding public lands sits today.

Likely in response to FLPMA and perhaps an increasing interest by the general public on a national level to regulate grazing and forestry practices on public lands, the Sagebrush Rebellion of 1976 began. Largely lead by ranchers who in some cases rightly felt their lifestyles and livelihoods were being infringed upon, the rebellion was put down in 1984 by the courts.

But its spirit lives on and can be witnessed in recent upsurges such as the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada by rancher Cliven Bundy, the illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah spearheaded by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and inflamed by Bundy’s son Ryan, and the illegal takeover of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon by Ryan and Ammon Bundy and accomplices.

In spite of the radical nature of the Bundys’ misaligned defiance, it is understandable on some levels and to varying degrees represents the unrest and dissatisfaction the west has been accumulating with the federal government. American heritage in the west is all but synonymous with the western rancher/cowboy culture as it embodies the rugged individualism of the American ethos.

And it is that ethos and the ill-informed infatuation with it that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have aligned with to accomplish corporate interests disguised as the interests of everyday Americans with a stake in public lands.

ALEC is a political vehicle of the Koch Brothers for transforming their ideology and policy preferences into law. Extractive industries, such as mining industries and fossil fuels, as well as real estate developers desire federal lands for development without the environmental regulations, fees, and royalties required by federal land management agencies.

And with the recent election of Donald Trump and a powerful Republican majority, the groundwork is now in place for a real and viable threat to public lands once so ardently protected by legislation enforced by the courts.

Utah Republican Mike Noel presents an example of the not so rhetorical threat to public land. Although he is far from alone in this mindset, his is an ardent and effective approach among conservatives. He works to demonize opposing views, intimidate opponents, and assert incredulous nonsense guised as compassionate conservatism while appearing to have a working agenda consistent with the needs of extractive industries. He refers to people under his charge-the people who live and recreate in Utah that is- who do not agree with him as “bunny lovers, tree huggers, and rock lickers.”

Noel is making a bid to be the head of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency he seems to publicly despise, presumably to either dismantle it or overhaul it to an unrecognizable state.

He perceives advocates for limiting resource extraction to protect Utah’s striking red-rock landscapes, wildlife, rivers, and archaeological resources as enemies to the rural communities of Utah and believes such practices harm the land rather than protect it. He cites no credible sources of information to validate such claims, however, and is an ardent advocate for extractive industries and development.

Noel is an example of what I mean when I say that what was once a mindset held exclusively in small and easily discredited groups, is now gaining the ground it needs to be a viable force and threat to the legislative process that once stopped it in its tracks.

The current atmosphere contains more than veiled threats without teeth to the sanctity of hard-fought-for and won public land policy. It represents a clear and present danger to it because this president and administration are sympathetic to the maligned agendas of the extractive industries and the legislators owned by them. They could very conceivably, and likely with absolute impunity, overturn FLPMA, the Property Clause, and the Antiquities Act for that matter. What was once protected by the courts will no longer be, and the consequences will be grave and real.

That is why it is more important now than it has ever been to become informed and engaged activists and advocates for the land and the environment we all live in. It is not enough to merely vote your conscience, recycle and reuse your waste, and tell the waiter you would like your beverage without a straw.

I was recently approached by a person who asked me what I thought of the whole land debacle and in particular what I thought of the outdoor retailer Patagonia’s proverbial removing of the gloves as it spearheaded a pullout of the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City and made know its intent to litigate with the Trump Administration over the attempt to overturn the Bears Ears National Monument designation.

I  began by asking him if he really wanted to know what I thought. When he seemed sincere in his intent to know, I inquired whether he knew of the history of our public lands and the legislation mentioned in this article. He acquiesced that he did not. I then asked him how he could, with such conviction, support a mandate for something he did not understand all sides of. He asked me if I recognized the overreach of the federal government. We both saw valid points to one another’s concerns, and a healthy debate ensued. I hope it continues.

This may be one of the most important discussions of our generation, folks. Please inform yourselves and get involved. You are, whether you choose to be our not.

See you out there.

The BLM, Ranchers, and Domestic Terrorism Part I: United States v. Dwight and Steven Hammond

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Demands for public land use are constantly escalating, and priorities for use of these lands have  shifted significantly in recent years. The changes are most pronounced with respect to lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.” ~Deborah L. Donahue, The Western Range Revisted

***New Information at the end of the article***

Two Oregon ranchers, a father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were tried and convicted for arson under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 in 2012 after igniting fires without required permits and/or during burn bans that spread to public BLM land in 2001 and 2006.

The mandatory minimum sentence under the anti-terrorism law is five years. On October 30, 2012, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan gave the Hammond’s lesser sentences than the required mandatory minimum under the law because he believed their actions were not consistent with the intent of the law by citing the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) and that to sentence them according to the letter of the law was “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here (Capitol Press)” and would go against his conscience (see court transcripts). He sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison, Steven Hammond to one year and one day, and fined them $400,000 for damages.

Unfortunately for the Hammonds, changing the sentence was outside of the Judge’s purview and the government lawyers appealed. In February 2014, a three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (see Hammond Opinion) ruled in favor of the government saying, “A minimum sentence mandated by the statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard,” and stated that the Hammonds must be returned to court for resentencing. That sentencing took place in October 2015.

According to an article on Oregon Live, Judge Stephen J. Murphy III said in his opinion, “Even a fire in a remote area has the potential to spread to more populated areas, threaten local property and residents or endanger the firefighters called to battle the blaze.” He noted that a teenage relative of the Hammonds was nearly burned by the fire and pointed out the damage to grazing land as well.

“Given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense,” the opinion states, in sending their cases back to the district court.

The article went on to quote Kelly Zusman, the appellate chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who applauded the decision saying, “The Hammonds’ actions in setting all of those fires and endangering their teen relative and BLM firefighters fell squarely within the type of conduct Congress wanted to see punished with a five-year sentence,” she said. “It’s important that the public know that setting fires to public lands — regardless of whether it’s a building in a city or sagebrush in Eastern Oregon — will result in federal jail time.”

At first blush this case seems ridiculous, but does it signify the increasing value of public lands and that to devalue or destroy them is an act of domestic terrorism?

If this is the direction the government is heading, and hotly contested controversy over a commodity is any indicator, one can reasonably come to the conclusion that land management issues are going to continue to surface and legal action is going to increase. The Bermuda Triangle that is land management, formed by the government, traditional users, and new progressive users, may have just produced a precedent setting case that rather than being ridiculous is indicative.

Land management has always been controversial, but the tide may be shifting on a much more significant level. Whereas the interests controlling land has largely been that of the extractive industries, such as mining, timber harvest, and cattle grazing, the economic driver today is overwhelmingly environmental and recreational tourism. This economic shift is putting power into the hands of new, progressive industries and people, many of whom have an environmental bent or ethic, who are shaping the debate over the use and management of public lands, marked by a growing interest in conservation and ecosystem management, and it reveals itself through changing priorities within land management agencies.

As Deborah L. Donahue states her book, The Western Range Revisited, “Today millions of people use the public lands for recreation; federal grazing permit holders number about 20,000. Recreational users of BLM lands generate hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and revenues for local businesses and equipment manufacturers and retailers. Livestock are permitted to use more than two-thirds of all public lands, yet those lands contribute but a tiny fraction of national livestock production. Revenues to the federal treasury from fees paid by stockmen fail even to cover the BLM’s costs to administer grazing activities.”

When we look at policies through the American paradigm of providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we are now seeing, more than ever before, that a healthy environment, abundant recreational opportunities, and human health and well-being are significant goods, and those goods are driving a huge economic sector. As a result, industry leaders and the public within this growing sector have more clout and support in shaping policy decisions.

Using this case as the litmus, this essay will look at the actions of the Hammonds, the anti-terrorism act as a legal tool for public land managers, and the consistent application of the law across states, specifically in the Cliven Bundy case.

While all land management agencies have to deal with competing interests and conflict, none have to more so, seemingly, than the BLM. One of the reasons for this may be the changing management requirements and priorities of the BLM to include protection.

BLM land is largely rangeland, which refers to lands that are, or have historically been, used by domestic livestock, and that until recent history was undesirable interior land managed for grazing and mineral extraction. Because it wasn’t National Park quality land or forests, the users were small in number and had the land to themselves. The BLM had no real reason to strictly regulate or restrict users because there weren’t a lot of them and there weren’t diverse groups competing for use.

That all changed in the 1970s with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act, but it really came to a head in 1996 when President Clinton designated Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, creating the first National Monument managed by the BLM. That designation instituted protection as one of the BLMs managing mandates. He went on to designate 14 more national monuments on BLM land.

All of the above, set forth by Congress or by presidential proclamation, required the BLM to consider the health of the range and manage the land in a manner that would improve the quality of rangelands. But special designations bring not only new users to include environmentalists, recreationists, and scientists, but also increased awareness and scrutiny.

Suddenly those who heretofore had unfettered access to the land had to share with a diverse group of users; furthermore, they were slowly limited in their uses of the land as well. This, not surprisingly, has made many of those traditional users angry, leading them to level charges of government land grabbing and over-reach. But according to the article, Clinton’s National Monuments: A Democrat’s Undemocratic Acts, by Albert C. Lin:

“There was [is] little substance to the “land grab” charges, as the land in question already belonged to the federal government and was therefore subject to disposition under the Property Clause. What such characterizations emphasized, however, was that certain state and local parties were accustomed to using the public lands as their own-and viewed them as such-and that the new land designation had suddenly disrupted their expectations concerning permitted uses of those lands.”

While one can only speculate as to how the Hammond’s viewed the public land their cattle grazed on, their actions are quite revealing and leave little room for doubt. It appears that their troubles came to a head in 1994 when they were arrested for blocking the Fish & Wildlife Service for building a fence that would keep the Hammond’s cattle out of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The Hammond’s claimed that they had water rights to the watering hole being fenced out and that they had a right to use the road through the refuge because it was a historic right-of-way. Because they had never been required to have a permit to use it before, they believed they had historic rights to use it.

It appears, however, that prior to this blowup the Refuge managers had had many run-ins with the Hammonds. According to a High Country News article published in 1996, “Hammond allegedly made death threats against previous managers in 1986 and 1988 and against Cameron, the current manager, in 1991 and again this year.” The problems managers at the refuge had with Hammond was that they did not follow the rules and regulations for grazing or moving cattle through the refuge and that because they had repeatedly ignored the FWS’s requests to abide by the rules, the FWS had no choice but to build the fence.

The High Country news article goes on to say, “According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dwight Hammond had repeatedly violated a special permit that allowed him to move his cows across the refuge only at specific times. In June, refuge manager Forrest Cameron notified Hammond that his right to graze cattle and grow hay on the lush waterfowl haven south of Burns was revoked. The feds also said they planned to build a fence along the refuge boundary to keep Hammond’s cows out of an irrigation canal.”

When the feds showed up to build the fence the Hammond’s placed their Caterpillar scraper on the boundary line in their way and disabled it. Only after a tow-truck arrived to remove the Caterpillar did Hammond jump in and move it, almost hitting an agent with it, all while yelling obscenities at the federal agents.

Not unlike the situation in Bunkerville, when the Hammonds were arrested, local ranchers rallied to their cause. The High Country News article states that around 500 “incensed” ranchers showed up at a rally in Burns, OR, to protest. Furthermore, the speaker of the American Land Rights Association, formerly the National Inholders Association, Chuck Cushman, “…issued a fax alert urging Hammond’s supporters to flood refuge employees with protest calls. Some employees reported getting threatening calls at home.”

Cushman also planned to print a poster with the names and photos of federal agents and refuge managers involved in the arrest and distribute it nationally. According to the article he said, “We have no way to fight back other than to make them pariahs in their community,” he said. Due to the pressure of these ranchers and groups, nothing much came of the situation.

This leads us to 2001 when Dwight and Steven Hammond lit a fire on their property allegedly to kill invasive species in order to improve the grazing conditions for their cattle. They burned down 139 acres of public BLM land on Steens Mountain next to their property that happened to be a part of their allotment. According to the testimony of grandson and nephew, Dusty Hammond, who was 13 years old at the time and present for the burn, however, Steven handed him matches so as to “light up the whole country on fire.”

According to Dusty’s testimony he walked the fence line dropping matches. When the flames got to be eight to ten feet tall he almost got burned over by the fire and had to seek shelter in a creek. Over lunch Dusty’s grandfather and uncle instructed him to “keep my mouth shut; nobody needed to know anything about the fire.”

Later, Dusty said that his grandfather flew his Super Cub over the scene to gauge the effect the fire had on juniper there. The burned land was taken out of production for two growing seasons as a result of the fire. A Utah man, Dennis Nelson, testified that he and his son Dusty Nelson met a hunting party, presumably the Hammond party, on the BLM tract that morning. Both men described a clear day marred by smoke that grew heavier as the morning wore on (OPB).

While Dwight and Steven claimed the fire got out of their control and that they intended for the fire to only burn on their property, the account by Dusty not only contradicts them, they clearly had something to gain by burning the adjacent BLM land.  According to range cons working for the BLM, the fire did improve grazing conditions on the land – land mind you that the Hammond’s had grazing permits on.

It must be noted here that there are questions as to the credibility of Dusty’s testimony. According to the Bundy Ranch blog, Dusty had been “suffering with mental problems for years.” They further state that “the Judge noted that Dusty’s memories as a 13 year-old boy were not clear or credible” and claim that the “Hammond family believes he was manipulated and expressed nothing but love for their grandson.”

Dusty lived on the Hammond ranch until he was 15 and then distanced himself from the family.

In 2006, after lightning strikes ignited wild fires on adjacent public land near the Hammond ranch, the Hammond’s back-burned on their property to protect winter feed. They did this during a burn ban and did not give the BLM notice of their intent to burn. They ended up burning an acre of public land on Krumbo Butte. The indictment alleged that the fire threatened to trap four BLM firefighters, one of whom confronted Dwight Hammond at the fire scene.

According to The Oregonian, the U.S. sued the Hammonds and their ranch in July 2011, saying the government spent $600,000 battling the blazes they set, which “endangered individuals, wildlife, structures, equipment and threatened the public health, interest and safety.”

A superseding indictment accused the men of setting fires to interfere with BLM employees and firefighters trying to stop the spread of wildfires. They also were accused of using fire to destroy U.S. property, witness tampering, conspiracy and other charges.

Government court papers suggest the Hammonds’ were displeased that the “BLM ‘takes too long’ to complete the required environmental studies before doing controlled rangeland burning.”

In 2012, after deliberating for several hours, the jury returned a partial verdict. They found the two men guilty of intentionally and maliciously damaging real property of the United States by fire, in violation of  of 18 U.S.C. § 844(f)(1), based on their respective roles in the 2001 Hardie-Hammond Fire near Steens Mountain, where BLM leased grazing rights to them. Steven Hammond was also convicted of arson in the 2006 Krumbo Butte Fire on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Steens Mountain.

The jury also acquitted the Hammonds of some charges and failed to reach a verdict on others, including conspiracy charges brought against Steven and Dwight. The government also dropped other allegations of setting other fires in 2006.

Update 1/11/2016: I decided to look into wildland fire arson cases to compare against the Hammond case. Arson is a real crime with real damages and dangers. According to this article published in 2010, the Hammonds have burned 45,000 acres over 28 years. High Country News, Some notable arson wildfire cases in the west: http://www.hcn.org/issues/42.13/some-notable-arson-wildfires-in-the-west

Update 1/4/2016:

The U.S. Attorney in Oregon wrote a letter to the people of Harney County, OR in regard to the Hammond case. It appears that the Hammond’s illegally slaughtered seven deer before setting fire to the BLM land. Two Utah hunters witnessed it and testified to it. Here is the letter:

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U.S. Attorney Billy Williams explains the circumstances of the prosecution and sentencing of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond for arson.
Contributed by: Les Zaitz, The Oregonian

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