Roosevelt, Robber Barons, and the Continued Fight for Our Public Lands

Roosevelt, Robber Barons, and the Continued Fight for Our Public Lands

Last week, we all witnessed the beauty of democracy in a vivid way when Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz withdrew a piece of proposed legislation called H.R. 621. If passed, this bill would have instructed the Secretary of the Interior to begin disposing of your federally managed public-land hunting and fishing grounds in ten western states. Hunters and anglers came out in such rabid defense of our public lands that Chaffetz rightfully shit-canned the whole idea. I was so moved by the victory that I actually choked up and shed a tear, which is usually something reserved for the birth of my children.

As good as it felt, it’s important to understand that our victory over H.R. 621 was really only a skirmish in the broader war over America’s public lands. As I write this, two related bills are making their way through Washington D.C. One is H.R. 622, which was introduced by the same guy who brought us the defeated H.R. 621. This bill has the goal of eliminating the law enforcement functions of the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The second bill, H.J. Res. 44, which scuttles the recently revised BLM land management planning process, called Planning 2.0, was passed by  the House of Representatives on February 7. It will go up for a Senate vote in a week or so.

It’s helpful if you think about these things in their broader context, which requires you to step back in time. In 1901, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz reached out as though he wanted to shake President McKinley’s hand but instead shot him a couple of times with a .32 caliber revolver. The first shot grazed the president, but the second punched through his abdomen. The bullet was never found, the wound became gangrenous, McKinley died, and Theodore Roosevelt became president.

At the time, our nation was experiencing catastrophic losses of wildlife and rampant environmental destruction. Roosevelt believed that we were on the verge of wholesale ecological collapse. A lifelong naturalist and hunter, he recognized that preserving habitat was the most important step toward restoring America’s wildlife populations. He was exceedingly efficient. During his time in office he set aside 230-million acres of public land, including about 150 million acres of national forest.

In many ways, Roosevelt’s vision of a public land system was a response to the land and wildlife management systems of Europe. We’re all familiar with the mythical figure of Robin Hood, that swashbuckling archer who poached the king’s game with his trusty bow. The reason that Robin Hood had to steal game was because “commoners” in England were effectively barred from hunting and fishing. The aristocracy owned all of the land, and they kept the land and the land’s resources for themselves. You could have your eyes gouged out for poaching, or else you could be hanged, castrated, or killed by dogs. The notion of public land, where the lowly working class was free to roam and hunt and fish, was distasteful to the aristocracy of England. In Roosevelt’s time, this wasn’t such a distant memory as it is today. Roosevelt was forthright about his intentions to preserve land for the spiritual and physical well-being of all Americans, regardless of income, race, and political affiliation. In fact, his concerns about the longevity of American wildlife extended beyond his own immediate constituency. He kept in mind the unborn generations, or as he put it, those “within the womb of time.”

Today, we find almost universal approval of Roosevelt’s work. Any contemporary politician would welcome a favorable comparison to Roosevelt — after all, we went so far as to carve his face into a gigantic wall of rock that is visited by 3-million people annually. But Roosevelt did have serious and powerful enemies. The industrialists and those old-timey villains now known as the “robber barons” hated his guts. They felt, rightly so, that Roosevelt stood in the way of them making fortunes without any long-term regard for the American people and American wildlife. Just as Roosevelt was hardly the first American conservationist, these guys were hardly the first American assholes. Their selfish forefathers have been here since the start. One of the first major decisions that we had to make about wildlife in this country had to do with its ownership. Some Americans thought that we should adhere to the European system and make wildlife the private property of private landowners. (If you’re guessing that the proponents of this idea were the same guys who already owned the land, having been granted it by the King of England, you’re right.) Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court took a decidedly revolutionary approach and declared American wildlife to be the property of the American people to be administered on their behalf by the government.

It sometimes surprises me that the principles of public land and public wildlife are so insulting to some people, but their antagonism does make a bit more sense when you realize how long they’ve been at it. Their motivations remain largely the same, though their rhetoric is constantly getting tweaked and refined. Consider the folks who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016. They had the same gripes as the robber barons, that the government was hindering their ability to make maximum profits (in this case, grazing cattle) from land that didn’t actually belong to them. Denied unfettered access, they lashed out and challenged the validity of the people’s claim to the land. What was novel about their approach was that they dressed up their aggression by literally wrapping themselves in the American flag, as though it was possible to hide their true intentions behind a dizzying abundance of ironies. Basically, they were telling us that they were standing “with” the American people by shutting down a publicly owned patch of ground in Oregon and then threatening the lives of law enforcement officers who are bound by a selfless oath to safeguard the liberty and well-being of American citizens.

The Malheur occupiers eventually went free, acquitted of their crimes. It’s safe to consider those thugs as the spiritual cousins of the legislators who are trying to delegitimize our public lands through the enactment of their hostile bills. Together, they oppose the notion that we should preserve landscapes for future generations. They do this because they lack the intellectual spirit to visualize the long-term continuation of this American experience with abundant wildlife and public access, or else because they simply lack the empathy to give a shit. What’s most frustrating about them is that they refuse to acknowledge what they’re really after. They like to talk about “local control,” and “states’ rights.” Obviously, the value of those ideals is indisputable. But when you raise the veil and take a careful look, you invariably find wealthy and powerful individuals who are frustrated by the long-standing mandates that guide our federal land management agencies. Their errand boy politicians are sent by them to pillage our public lands heritage in sly ways meant to conceal what’s actually going on.

Which brings us back around to the current pieces of legislation that are making their way through Washington.

In the case of H.R. 622, which will strip away the law enforcement capabilities of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, we’re being told that it’s a cost-saving measure for the American taxpayer that will bring “local control” to citizens who live near federally managed public land. (I could spend a bunch of time explaining that these federal officers are local people, who come from local communities and send their kids to local schools and sacrifice on behalf of local citizens, but I don’t want to dwell on the obvious.) You could be excused for thinking that the genesis of this bill lies with a political action committee comprised of poachers and illegal marijuana growers, but instead it’s Congressman Chaffetz from Utah. He says that county sheriffs will be able to handle the several hundred million acres of jurisdiction that’s being dumped into their laps thanks to a system of “block grants” given to them by the same American taxpayers who are supposedly saving money by the eradication of existing law enforcement agencies.

It makes you wonder what’s really going on. I hesitate to give my own answer to that, because it sounds almost too cynical to be taken seriously. But here goes, anyway: the people who are fighting against federally managed public lands often justify their viewpoint with the argument that federal land managers don’t do an adequate job of managing these lands. In order to give some teeth to their own arguments, they do everything in their power to deprive land managers of the necessary tools to do their jobs. It reminds me of a common argument in my own home about our dishwasher. I hate the thing. I’m biased against certain kitchen electronics (it’s irrational, I admit) and so I argue to my wife that the dishwasher is neither as efficient or effective as hand washing. My wife argues the opposite. If I were going to borrow a move from the playbook of anti-public lands people, I would disable certain components of the dishwasher in order to turn my subjective opinion into an objective reality. That’s what’s going on with H.R. 622.

When it comes to torpedoing the BLM’s Planning 2.0 process, lawmakers are again arguing the “local control” side of things. Which is weird, because Planning 2.0 actually increases the amount of public input that goes into important BLM decisions that affect our public lands. What’s more, it allows the BLM to more fully consider such things as the integrity of wildlife movement corridors and other key habitats during their decision-making process. In the past, the well-being of fish and game was somewhat ignored by the BLM. Logically, local sportsmen and local outdoor businesses were excited by the ways in which Planning 2.0 could make our public lands even more game-rich than they are now. But of course, those locals aren’t the locals that the opponents of public land care about. The ones that they care about are the ones with the fatter checkbooks, the ones who stand to reap the most immediate rewards by pillaging our natural landscapes with little thought toward those within Roosevelt’s “womb of time.”

If you’re willing to stand up for our public-land hunting and fishing grounds, check out the work of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. They are aggressive defenders of our public lands, as well as many other battles that are important to hunters and anglers.

To get informed and take action on H.R. 622, go here:

To get informed and take action in defense of the BLM’s Planning 2.0, go here:

Thank you. -Steven Rinella

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