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Holding the line: Property rights and public lands

Holding the line

“The best thing we have learned from nearly five hundred years of contact with the American wilderness is restraint, the willingness to stay our hand; to visit such places for our souls’ good…”     ~ Wallace Stenger

Teddy Roosevelt and America’s first Forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that conservation was a cause vital to the United States’ remaining a land of equals. Acting on that belief, they did the unthinkable – they set aside large swaths of the American landscape as public land, designating National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, thus protecting both land and resources from the rich and powerful, the industrialists and capitalists who would “not leave the land as it is, who would only mar it.”

It was anathema to their class and status, both coming from wealthy and privileged Eastern families. The issue wasn’t necessarily class warfare; however; and it wasn’t just a battle for land or money, though those certainly played a part. It was a battle between two different mentalities sprouting from the same root that came to a head over deeply held yet conflicting American principles: the right to property and the right to liberty.

In order to have true liberty, or free-will, one must be on equal footing with everyone else. Inequality diminishes liberty. If one’s right to vote is contingent on owning property and there are laws that say certain groups cannot own property, then those groups are not on equal footing with their fellow countrymen and hence their free-will, or liberty, is hindered. This is an example of unequal treatment under the law in that some are granted privileges while others are excluded from them.

Equality is inherently an issue of access: access to an education, to vote, to own property, to employment, to knowledge and information, to the internet, to medical care, etc. The list goes on and on. Not having access to any of these leaves people in the dark ages.

Unfortunately the principle of property rights has been used as a tool to deny access to others for centuries and its use for those ends is still pursued today. The thing to understand about owning property; however, and this must be emphasized, is that property rights imply the freedom to act. Having title to property amounts to legal proof of ownership; property rights, on the other hand, amount to the owner’s possession of rights to perform certain physical actions on that property (1). In other words, property rights allow or restrict actions depending on whether you are the owner or guest of the property.

When public lands were created and given to the American people, what we got possession of was not the physical land, but the rights to perform certain actions on those lands. We were given access and equal footing with everyone else who was given those rights. It was a radical idea that rivals colonial America’s win against Britain for most unbelievable success story in American history.

But success can be short lived. The same forces working against Roosevelt and Pinchot are alive and well today. The same mentality is trying to take our property rights away, be it to the states, industry, or private citizens. The people pushing this agenda are not only trying to take public lands, they are trying to wrestle away our possession of property rights, and thus access and freedom to perform physical actions on those lands. If they succeed we will lose more than the ability to hunt and fish, to hike and bike, to backpack and kayak; we will cease to be a nation of equals and this is why:

Not everyone will have access to the pristine, natural beauty found on public lands. Places outside the noise and clatter of cities with clean air and water; places of spiritual significance, solitude and space will belong only to those who have access to them. Our ability to escape to cool and quiet alpine air to heal from an angry and violent world or to walk in the footsteps of past generations in places unchanged for hundreds of years will be gone or off limits, open only to those with the money and property rights to be there.

It’s not a partisan issue, though it is the GOP pushing this agenda. If you don’t like the presidential candidates, remember what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do and imagine the opposite. Remember also that 80 percent of Congress is up for re-election. They control the purse strings that can fund or starve management of our lands, as well as the pen to pass laws that undermine or enhance our access to them.

Holding lands in trust for future generations was a great moral issue 100 years ago and it’s still a great moral issue today. Right now, even if we do not own a house, we have property rights to land that grants us access to engage in a host of physical activities where we can feel as at home in them as anyone else.

Most of our public lands exist in the West, and the West has always been synonymous with freedom – freedom to enter what the Irish officer in the British Army, William F. Butler described in 1872:

“The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. In winter, a dazzling surface of purest snow; in early summer, a vast expanse of grass and pale pink roses, in autumn too often a wild sea of raging fire.

No ocean or water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets, no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie; one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the creator.”

So long as the public keeps vigilant watch over the land, deep pockets of the powerful will not prevail. But keeping watch entails more than using the land for recreation, it presupposes a duty to act as sentries and guardians ready to sound the alarm when under attack. It would be a mistake to assume that our public lands and our access to them will always be there. Nothing in politics is written in stone. In this arena, those who care the most, win.

(1) Foundation for Economic Education, Gary Pecquet. Private Property and Government under the Constitution.

 

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Who Should Manage Public Lands within Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune’s sponsored debate on public lands management in Salt Lake City May 14th, 2014. This debate is is being had in many other western states as well who are teaming up with Utah in it’s battle against the Federal Government for public lands. It seems to me that Nevada already tried this argument and lost, albeit without the ‘duty to dispose’ theory.

Utah Enabling Act – Section in Question:

“That the people inhabiting said proposed State to agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof; and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and said Indian lands shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States; that the lands belonging to citizens of the United States residing without the said State shall never be taxed at a higher rate than the lands belonging to residents thereof; that no taxes shall be imposed by the State on lands or property therein belonging to or which may hereafter be purchased by the United States or reserved for its use; but nothing herein, or in the ordinance herein provided for, shall preclude the said State from taxing, as other lands are taxed, any lands owned or held by any Indian who has severed his tribal relations and has obtained from the United States or from any person a title thereto by patent or any other grant, save and except such lands as have been or may be granted to any Indian or Indians under any Act of Congress containing a provision exempting the lands thus granted from taxation; but said ordinance shall provide that all such land be exempt from taxation by said State so long and to such extent as such Act of Congress may prescribe.”

Ranching rears its head again:

“Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a substantial amount of federal land was still being unloaded each year, but that law ended the homesteading era where the goal had been to transfer federal land to state and private ownership. The Taylor Grazing Act authorized the Interior to put 80 million acres of land into grazing districts, which required users to get permits, pay fees, and follow federal regulations. Federal land sales slowed to a trickle, and the last major disposal of federal lands was in 1980 when Congress turned over several million acres of land to the state of Alaska and Native Americans in that state.

Robert Nelson has noted that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority. As such, there have been occasional revolts against federal land ownership in the West, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Two developments that helped spur that rebellion were a 1974 environmental lawsuit that threatened to restrict grazing rights and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that existing federal lands would remain in federal ownership. Western states led by Nevada fought back with legislation aimed at transferring federal lands to state ownership. However, the revolt fizzled out when ranchers and other users of federal land realized that they might not receive the same level of subsidies they currently received if land ownership was changed. The anti-Washington rally cry of the Sagebrush Rebellion had popular appeal, but the special interests that rely on the inexpensive use of federal lands helped to block reforms.”

– See more at: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/interior/reforming-federal-land-management#sthash.dPTRCF2K.dpuf

Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a substantial amount of federal land was still being unloaded each year, but that law ended the homesteading era where the goal had been to transfer federal land to state and private ownership.9 The Taylor Grazing Act authorized Interior to put 80 million acres of land into grazing districts, which required users to get permits, pay fees, and follow federal regulations. Federal land sales slowed to a trickle, and the last major disposal of federal lands was in 1980 when Congress turned over several million acres of land to the state of Alaska and Native Americans in that state.

Robert Nelson has noted that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.”10 As such, there have been occasional revolts against federal land ownership in the West, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Two developments that helped spur that rebellion were a 1974 environmental lawsuit that threatened to restrict grazing rights and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that existing federal lands would remain in federal ownership.11 Western states led by Nevada fought back with legislation aimed at transferring federal lands to state ownership. However, the revolt fizzled out when ranchers and other users of federal land realized that they might not receive the same level of subsidies they currently received if land ownership was changed. The anti-Washington rally cry of the Sagebrush Rebellion had popular appeal, but the special interests that rely on the inexpensive use of federal lands helped to block reforms.

– See more at: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/interior/reforming-federal-land-management#sthash.dPTRCF2K.dpuf

Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a substantial amount of federal land was still being unloaded each year, but that law ended the homesteading era where the goal had been to transfer federal land to state and private ownership.9 The Taylor Grazing Act authorized Interior to put 80 million acres of land into grazing districts, which required users to get permits, pay fees, and follow federal regulations. Federal land sales slowed to a trickle, and the last major disposal of federal lands was in 1980 when Congress turned over several million acres of land to the state of Alaska and Native Americans in that state.

Robert Nelson has noted that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.”10 As such, there have been occasional revolts against federal land ownership in the West, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Two developments that helped spur that rebellion were a 1974 environmental lawsuit that threatened to restrict grazing rights and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that existing federal lands would remain in federal ownership.11 Western states led by Nevada fought back with legislation aimed at transferring federal lands to state ownership. However, the revolt fizzled out when ranchers and other users of federal land realized that they might not receive the same level of subsidies they currently received if land ownership was changed. The anti-Washington rally cry of the Sagebrush Rebellion had popular appeal, but the special interests that rely on the inexpensive use of federal lands helped to block reforms.

– See more at: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/interior/reforming-federal-land-management#sthash.dPTRCF2K.dpuf

Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a substantial amount of federal land was still being unloaded each year, but that law ended the homesteading era where the goal had been to transfer federal land to state and private ownership.9 The Taylor Grazing Act authorized Interior to put 80 million acres of land into grazing districts, which required users to get permits, pay fees, and follow federal regulations. Federal land sales slowed to a trickle, and the last major disposal of federal lands was in 1980 when Congress turned over several million acres of land to the state of Alaska and Native Americans in that state.

Robert Nelson has noted that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.”10 As such, there have been occasional revolts against federal land ownership in the West, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Two developments that helped spur that rebellion were a 1974 environmental lawsuit that threatened to restrict grazing rights and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which declared that existing federal lands would remain in federal ownership.11 Western states led by Nevada fought back with legislation aimed at transferring federal lands to state ownership. However, the revolt fizzled out when ranchers and other users of federal land realized that they might not receive the same level of subsidies they currently received if land ownership was changed. The anti-Washington rally cry of the Sagebrush Rebellion had popular appeal, but the special interests that rely on the inexpensive use of federal lands helped to block reforms.

– See more at: http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/interior/reforming-federal-land-management#sthash.dPTRCF2K.dpuf

A legal defense of Utah’s H.B. 148: http://dnr.alaska.gov/commis/cacfa/documents/FOSDocuments/UtahLegalOverviewofUT_HB148.pdf

 

 

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