Thursday, February 09, 2017

More Western Landscape Protected

Repugnants began their assault on the public estate without waiting for the Trumpster to occupy the room-without-corners. Utah conservative Rob Bishop introduced a measure, which to the uninitiated seemed innocuous enough, but in reality it was a direct shot at making disposal of public land a lot easier. The bill provides that conveying federal land is not considered an increase in the federal deficit requiring a budget offset. In other words, it made the federal public land estate worthless for fiscal purposes. The bill passed the conservative House of Representatives and did not require Senate approval, being a fiscal measure. The bill is in conformity with the Repugnant pledge in its party platform to divest public lands to the states. Once considered a fringe notion of the goofy right-wing, since the Malheur NWR "occupation" by the Bundys, {29.01.16} it has received a lot more traction in the public mind--witness their exoneration by a Portland, OR federal jury. The Wilderness Society expressed great concern over Bishop's piece of legislative legerdemain. One officer of the conservation group co-founded by Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall said, "The first thing out of the gate is to grease the skids", and noted no rational private landowner would treat their holdings as essentially worthless.  In response to the accusation he was paving the way for public land divestiture Rep. Bishop replied, "Bullshit."  No, Mr. Bishop, it is ideological fanaticism.

Two weeks after Bishop got his foot in the door, another conservative Utah Representative introduced a bill to sell 3.3 million acres of land in ten states. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was not to be outdone, suggesting that the recent Bear Ears Monument designation would be shortly overturned, adding that the Donald is "eager to work with me to address this". Obama designated 1.35 million acres in the Great Basin a monument just before he left office. {04.01.17} The designation was the culmination of a decade of effort by conservationists and Native Americans who consider parts of the landscape sacred.

It is somewhat ironic, if it were not dead, that the conservation movement at the beginning of the 20th Century was supported by a powerful Utah Senator, Reed Smoot. He supported the foundation of the National Forest Service (1905) and the National Park Service (1910). Now his state has become a hotbed of hotheaded public land divestiture. Most Westerners oppose divestiture. Much  federal revenue goes to those western states that have large areas of federal land within their borders. Robert Nelson, an economist at the Interior Department wrote that contrary to the popular image of "rugged individualism", the Intermountain West and Great Plains regions of the country are highly dependent on federal funds. The federal government owns an astonishing 86% of Nevada, and even 47% of urbanized California. Just one example of how the federal government subsidizes western development, which has a history going back to the Lewis and Clark expedition (1805), is its management of rangelands. The US government spends far more on management of these lands than the revenue it receives from ranchers who graze their livestock on public property. Disposal of federal lands effectively ended in 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act.  This policy was made explicit in the Federal Land Policy Act of 1976 that formalized federal land management by the BLM.

Rebellions seeking divestiture have arisen sporadically for the last 150 years, the previous one, called the "Sagebrush Rebellion" sputtered out because there was grudging recognition of western economic dependence on federal land subsidies. The latest episode began in 2012 when a Utah state legislator demanded in a bill that the federal government "return" 31 million acres of public land in Utah land including Bryan, Arches, and Zion National Parks. Incredibly the bill passed the legislature, but without federal acquiescence it went nowhere. Arizona passed a similar bill in the same year, but the governor vetoed it.  Now, the divestiture movement has attracted the opposition of a powerful economic interest, the outdoor recreation industry.

Whether the 'ace' businessman in the White House will reach a similar conclusion regarding the latest divestiture moves remains to be seen. When economists look at the issue they conclude that it only makes sense if a state transfers mineral rich divested lands to mining and oil companies for exploitation. So, once again the capitalists are masquerading as down-home populists, seeking ways to bamboozle the witless public. House Bill 621 to sell the 3.3 million acres of public estate was withdrawn after a significant public protest, but with their twittering puppet installed into power, they are ahead of this game.