When James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States of America, said that Public Lands are public resources that ought to be disposed of to the best advantage for the people several years ago, America was still a young nation hovering around the Atlantic Coast (Scott). None could have foretold that disputes over public land rights will plague the nation for a greater part of the 20th century. To the West, North, and South stretched broad swaths of unexplored wilderness, territories begging for exploration and conquest (Scott). Like great civilizations before it, America spent the first years of its infancy grappling with questions of governance, independence, state rights and sovereignty, and democracy. However, as the years progressed, the young America grew, the new government stabilized, and Americans turned their attention towards unexplored areas spurring disputes over ownership and use of rangeland resources that would last for several years to come. Even though conflicts have played a central role on the America rangelands of the West, there was also cooperation that brought stability and reason to the countryside. Therefore, by using the Oregon standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, this paper presents that when public (property) rights over resources are secure – either formally of informally – the various competing interests could be resolved (Besley and Ghatak; Fretwell and Milke). However, when such rights are not well-delineated and at worst non-existent, the allocation of resources could cause conflict.
While there could be several reasons why the public lands in the West have served as flashpoints for anti-government sentiments for several years, one of the causes is the ripple effects that underlie the complex history of land privatization and increasing federal control of any free land in these regions (Wilson). An example is the land in the American West whose federal ownership rose from nothing to over 600 million acres, constituting about 50% of the western territories compared to just 4% of land east of the Mississippi (Carlton and Frosch; Wilson). Therefore, behind the recent armed protests at the Malheur Reserve, lies the history long struggle between the agencies that manage land and ranches on behalf of the federal government, and the local miners, ranchers, and loggers who depend on it (Carlton and Frosch). There is also the element of injustice stemming from the nation’s history of land dispossession of local owners. In the recent past, however, another force in the form of personal values – the environmentalists views on the sustainable use of open space versus the local traditional uses of the resources that have sustained both the land and the communities for generations (Ridler).
In the past, the dry and mountainous region of the West provided viable land for ranching, as there were larger tracts of unsettled land for livestock grazing. Because the area was dry, a common practice for ranchers in the 19th century was to make homestead claims around water bodies and by default lay claim to the vast amount of public land without claims or money exchanging hands – albeit without holding titles (Wilson). This practice due to mutual respect and cooperation worked for some time. However, in the late 1800s, it led to the classic tragedy of the commons (Wilson). The epitome of this was the 1886 ‘Big Die-Up’ of thousands of cattle as soil erosion, environmental degradation, the disappearance of water, and the massive spread of diseases took a toll on the ranches (Wilson). Then, in the early 20th century, the ‘Dust Bowl’ happened stemming from the overgrazed and over-tilled landscapes of the West (Wilson). These and such-like events did not only help spawn the early conservation movements but prompted the federal government to begin setting portions of the free land under federal ownership. The government through the relevant state organs would manage wildlife refugee camps, national parks, and all the available wilderness on behalf of the people for public recreation and as well as protection (Besley and Ghatak; Wu). The more sensitive regions such as Forests and woodlands were placed under supersized logging, grazing, mining, and any other activity that had potential to use the resource (Scott). Congress also passed legislation to claim all the unclaimed Western rangelands under federal management and enacted policies such as the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 the give rise to the Bureau of Land Management BLM to manage and control rangeland grazing (Carlton and Frosch). The government further tightened its management of public lands through a series of legislations such the late 1970s and early 1980s Amendments on the Clean Air and Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (Wilson).
However, ever since the federal government shifted role from realtor to the landlord (Owner), tension and conflict have been rife in the West. The government has faced opposition from the local people, business, and third-party entities who use the resources found in those lands. Notable events include the Sage Rebellions of 1946 and 1980s, the County-Supremacy and Wise Use Movements of 1990s, and the most recent Malheur National Wildlife Refuge protests (Wilson). Even though these rebellions failed in demanding the government transfer back all the public lands it owns in the Western regional states for redistribution to private owners, they succeeded in continuing the broader sentiments of dissatisfaction with the federal ownership and management of local territorial lands. The recent events at Malheur are just an episode in this much longer narrative of public resource ownership. While this standoff claims to protect the livelihoods of ranchers and the several rural Westerners whose means of support are tied to these federal lands, if unchecked the demands of the protestors threaten this fragile ecosystem (Fretwell and Milke; Zielinski and Pyke). In this area where water and resources are both scarce and fickle, uncontrolled use of the land could further render the landscape more fragile thus throwing the community usage and management issues into a future of tremendous uncertainty. This uncertainty is why over the years the public has charged the government with managing public lands on their behalf (Zielinski and Pyke).
The increasing importance of protecting biodiversity, preserving and sustaining the health of the environment, and accessing public lands for recreational opportunities, have weighed heavily on the government. For a long time, the government has struggled due to its moral and legal duty to balance such interests with the benefit of people and businesses who rely on the same land for livelihoods and sustenance (I-text). This role of the government in the management and control of natural resources is not to say that ranchers in Oregon and the local community in Malheur are unsupportive of environmental priorities. They just have different views, methods, and interests on the matter. For example, the locals have lived in these areas, and the ranchers grazed on these lands for generations developing a rich pool of knowledge of ecological conservation in the process. However, environmental science-based studies show that some of the local activities such as ranching, mining, logging, and extraction of natural resources for traditional, socio-cultural or economic pursuits are having salient adverse effects on the environment leaving a legacy of pollution and degradation for taxpayers to rectify (Ridler). Environmentalists argue that unsustainable use of the rangelands have wiped out old-growth vegetation, overgrazed the landscape, and left the ecosystem more vulnerable to invasive species and vagaries of nature (Wu). However, the institutionalization of collaborative and innovative approaches to management can result in ‘win-win’ scenarios for all concerned parties – government, ranchers, the objective of environmentalists, and the local communities. Such is the kind of harmony and peaceful co-existence that the collaborative and participatory Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) agreement engineered decades ago between the competing interests of naturalists, ranchers, the community, and businesspeople (Zielinski and Pyke). Just like the TRCP, the tribal members, ranchers, Conservation groups, the state and federal agencies, and the local business owners at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge can join and hash out a formal conservation plan that would consider the interests of all people for the betterment of all.
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