Increasingly we are seeing an irrational and unfair anger build up against public lands and the people who work for the federal government. The High Country News, on October 27, 2014, published an extensive article about threats and physical violence against people who work for the Forest Service, the BLM, the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others. We should, however, ask ourselves, “What would the country be like without these land agencies and their employees?” One individual, a rancher, saw it both before and after major federal oversight and regulations, and this is what he wrote in 1943:
After centuries of flagrant waste America had at last discovered the word conservation. The Federal government took over as the national forests the timberlands, together with their grass and water. Henceforth these resources were to be used with tomorrow’s needs and not today’s quick profits in mind. To graze stock on the forests both sheep and cattle ranchers had to pay a fee and abide by many regulations concerning the quality and handling of their animals. … At first there were howls of indignation. Western politicians beat the drum of state’s rights, insisting Washington had gone too far. Back home there were lawsuits, name callings, defiance, and letters to the editor. But gradually, as the beneficial results of the program became manifest, opposition simmered down. In the main even sufferers admit that the forest policy is correct in principle, despite some errors in application, and it provided control to the entire public domain. The day of the “free” or “open” range is forever gone, and in spite of occasional bunkhouse fumings over bits of local injustice, there is not a rancher who would willingly return to the former catch-as-catch-can ways of obtaining grass.
This is from David Lavender’s outstanding memoir, One Man’s West. Today’s issues would include, in addition to grazing, all the extractive industries like coal, oil, gas, and uranium, solar and wind farms, as well as countless recreational activities, and wilderness and historical designations, too. Could we count on the people who are interested in these issues to cooperate with one another and make everyone happy? In light of the probable answer, is the authority of a strong referee, such as Uncle Sam, not advisable?
Would it be better to let states or even counties, or corporations or individuals, have the ultimate say over what happens on the public lands? Do locals “know better” and “do things better” and are they “more just”? My rule is: The best ruler is strong and far away, the worst is weak and nearby. A homier way to envision this is to imagine your grumpy neighbor suddenly becoming your community’s dictator. In that case, would everything be hunky-dory?
We should view our public lands and federal employees in an objective way. Currently we have free, or nearly free, and easy access to most of the public lands for recreation, whereas if it were private land this would not be the case. The employees shop at the same stores as everyone else, their kids go to the same schools, I know some who are generous in their communities and through their churches, they go to the same hospitals as you, they often watch the same lousy T.V. shows as you, and eventually they’ll probably be buried in the same cemetery as you. If you’re lucky you may be set to rest beside a land-use planner, and in this case you’ll be able to argue public-lands policy for eternity. Let’s try living in peace so that later we can rest in peace.