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Friday, 20 May 2016 07:37

We Need to Stop the Legalized Theft of Public Land in the West

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2016 May20malheurMalheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where armed anti-federal land militants occupied the site and demanded the public land from the US government earlier this year. (Photo: John Matthews)

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During the armed occupations of the Cliven Bundy ranch in 2014 and of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this year, the "sovereign citizen" militants carrying out the occupations were seizing federally owned lands and demanding their privatization. The unjust irony of these demands was that -- in both cases -- the militants were descendants of white colonialist settlers trying to claim personal ownership of land that is the rightful property of Indigenous peoples.

The occupations of the Bundy ranch area and Malheur were covered by the mainstream media as a standoff between law enforcement officials on the federal and local levels versus the militia occupiers. A vital public policy issue that the confrontations raised is to what extent are public lands under threat in the West.

A new report, "The Disappearing West," by the Center for American Progress offers an ominous analysis of the diminishing Western lands open for public use. "Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development," the study states. The report, conducted in conjunction with Conservation Science Partners, warns of the looming peril:

From governors’ mansions to the halls of Congress, questions about land and wildlife conservation command relatively little attention today. The conventional wisdom seems to hold that the most consequential battles over America’s wild places are already settled. President Theodore Roosevelt, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and the environmental activists of the 1960s won protections for national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas. In the eyes of some politicians, the West’s open spaces are not only well protected, but too well protected. An anti-parks caucus in the U.S. Congress, for example, wants to block new national parks and sell off the West’s national forests to private owners....

Although the conversion of private land to development accounted for 3/4s of the loss of open spaces, 1/4 was due to conversion of government-owned state and federal land in the West. That's a considerable amount of public land loss when you consider that the analysis estimated that "between 2001 and 2011, approximately 4,300 square miles of natural areas in the West disappeared because of development -- that loss amounts to an area bigger than Yellowstone National Park."

The privatized land is being used for commercial development, fossil fuel extraction (including fracking), tree-cutting, and roads, among other for-profit ventures. The negative impact is not just a loss of inspiring natural settings that provide a respite from the clamor of the world of commerce. According to the study,

The disappearance of the West’s natural areas, of course, affects not only its people, but entire ecosystems.

In California alone, more than 300 plant and animal species are at or near the brink of extinction. And although the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, has been a lifeline for mammals like the gray wolf and the grizzly bear, dozens more western wildlife species are in decline. According to data compiled in the IUCN, or International Union for Conservation of Nature, Red List, the populations of more than 40 percent of snakes, lizards, and other reptiles in the West, for example, are decreasing.

The reality is that, without adequate protections for their habitat, a growing proportion of western wildlife will need the legal protections of the ESA to survive. And without protections for habitat, the continued collapse of wildlife populations will have profound human and economic consequences.

A land conservation website, ProtectOurPublicLand.org, warns of a coordinated effort by states to have federal lands transferred to them -- and then sell them off for natural resource extraction and other uses:

Our public lands -- millions of acres of forests, mountains, rivers, and plains -- are a part of who we are. Right now, a group of powerful special interests are waging an aggressive campaign to sell off public lands in the west. They want to see our national lands privatized for short-term gain, at the expense of our shared American inheritance. This public land heist threatens hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, rangelands, wildlife refuges, parks, wilderness areas, and historic sites, but it also threatens the fundamental American notion that our public lands belong to everyone....

Backed by wealthy private interests who put profit above people, [special interests are] pitching legislation that aims to dispose of our shared public lands to state governments and private entities. The catch is, when a state owns land, it no longer belongs to the public. It can be sold off, developed, exploited, or turned into private real estate. States have no obligation to involve the public in these decisions. [In one recent year], 35 bills were introduced to seize and sell off public lands in 11 western states.

The state effort to get federal lands turned over to Western states in order to sell them to the extraction and timber industries, to ranchers and to other developers has an infamous champion, according to a 2013 article in Think Progress:

ALEC and Americans for Prosperity have been fanning the fire under these efforts to “reclaim” federal public lands. ALEC is a conservative corporate front group funded by fossil-fuel interests such as the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil that develops model legislation for state legislators to introduce in their legislatures, and it has endorsed many of the bills turning public lands over to the states. As the Associated Press reported, “Lawmakers in Utah and Arizona have said the legislation is endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that advocates conservative ideals, and they expect it to eventually be introduced in other Western states.” 

It should be of little surprise to find ALEC and the Koch brothers at the center of efforts to legally sell off public federal lands in the West to states, who would then put them up for sale to the highest bidders.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.