Your community connector

HCN explains threats to public lands

Locations: News Published

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

A panel discussion sponsored by High Country News will take place in Basalt on June 10 at 6:30 p.m., at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s newly constructed Innovation Center, focusing on the topic of “The Fate of Our Public Lands.”

  • Dave Taylor thumbnail

The conference, according to HCN Managing Editor Brian Calvert, is meant to describe an effort by right-wing activists in some western states to force the federal government to relinquish its control of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.

At the heart of the controversial proposals — which are described in numerous articles in HCN and other publications — is what HCN writer Jonathan Thompson termed “a new and more dangerous Sagebrush Rebellion” in an article on Feb. 10 of this year.

  • Carbondale Animal Hospital thumbnail

The article was referring to a politically conservative movement several decades ago, aimed at ending federal control of public lands and turning that control over to private hands.

The conference is billed as a fundraiser for HCN, with tickets costing $20 in advance or $25 at the door.

  • RJ PADDY thumbnail

The event will feature a panel discussion among HCN senior editors and writers, including Thompson and Jodi Peterson, and HCN’s Washington, D.C. Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren, moderated by Calvert (see sidebar on page 13).

The discussion will be broadcast live on KAJX.

  • KDNK thumbnail

The controversy

According to articles in HCN and elsewhere, the issues surrounding the latest iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion are many layered.

  • Film Festival thumbnail

At the surface, the “rebels” bill themselves as foes of federal authority over public lands, lands that the movement claims were promised to the states when they joined the Union during the formation of our country.

The movement members argue that current federal management of some 640 million acres of public lands in the west is unconstitutional. They have garnered considerable support among conservative politicians, writers and activists, who stand with the “rebels” in their demands that the federal government relinquish control of vast amounts of public land.

According to one HCN story, by writer Bryce Gray, the unconstitutionality argument is a misinterpretation of what is known as the “Enclave Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which the “rebels” believe gives states the rights to opt out of federal land management.

Gray, however, quotes legal scholars as having the opposite interpretation — that the clause actually reinforces the federal government’s authority to set aside and control use of public lands.

In addition, reporter/writer Josh Zeitz, in the Politico online publication, wrote on Jan. 7 that the militants were incorrect in their assumptions about public lands management, and that the states were never granted rights to the federally controlled public lands within their boundaries, and that claims that the states, ranchers and other activists are owed these lands was in direct contravention to history.

“From the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Oregon Treaty of 1846, to the Mexican Cession (1848), Gadsden Purchase (1853) and Alaska Purchase (aka Seward’s Folly, 1867), the vast majority of federal lands were paid for by the blood, tax dollars, deeds and misdeeds of residents of  all the United States,” not just a small number of ranchers who presently live in the region, Zeitz wrote.

“In fact, the only meaningful swath of territory the federal government obtained directly from states was roughly 233 million acres that New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut agreed to cede to Congress,” Zeitz continued. “Congress, in turn, created the Northwest Territory, out of which it later carved out today’s Midwestern states … Ohio and Illinois.)”


The most recent manifestation of the new Sagebrush Rebellion movement was the occupation earlier this year of the 188,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, an occupation ostensibly meant to protest prison sentences for two area ranchers convicted of committing arson on federal land.

But following a peaceful protest about the prison sentences, the event became an armed standoff between anti-government militants and law-enforcement agencies of the affected counties, the state and the federal government.

Leading the occupiers was Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, a 71-year-old rancher from Nevada, had forced an armed standoff with federal land managers in 2014 over nonpayment of $1.2 million in leasing fees owed to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in return for permits that let him graze cattle on federal land.

The occupying militants, according to news stories, threatened essentially to engage in a gunfight with law enforcement officials over the militants’ demands that control of the Refuge be turned over to them, which they believed was somehow called for in the U.S. Constitution.

Further, the militants and their supporters have demanded that federal land mangers cede control of public lands to the states.

In a series of articles this year, HCN reporters concluded that if the lands were turned over to the states as demanded, the most likely outcome would be the sale of those same lands at bargain-basement prices to energy, logging and other private land-exploitation interests.

The lands

According to published accounts, the 640 million acres now under federal control make up roughly 35 percent of the approximately 1.85 billion acres of public lands amassed by the feds between 1781 and 1867, when westward expansion of the nation is generally acknowledged to have been finished.

Throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Politico, federal agencies got rid of approximately two-thirds of its holdings, largely in the interests of economic and regional development, land grants to veterans, or the raising of money to fund new public universities.

In addition, millions of acres were given to citizens under various land-settlement acts passed by Congress, and millions more went to the fledgling railroads as a way to tie up the vast new country into a cohesive bundle.

Therefore, the activists at Malheur Refuge and their supporters are wrong about their claim to the lands.

But the true undercurrent beneath the new Sagebrush Rebellion, according to published articles, is one of virulent, right-wing, anti-democratic rhetoric and violent intentions.

“Whereas the Sagebrush Rebellion of old was driven largely by pragmatic, grassroots concerns, today’s version is purely ideological –– a nationwide confluence of right-wing and libertarian extremists,” wrote Jonathan Thompson in February. “Many of them have little interest in grazing allotments, mining laws or the Wilderness Act. It’s what these things symbolize that matters: A tyrannical federal government that activists can denounce, defy and perhaps even engage in battle.”

A new network

A network of groups has coalesced around such ideas, wrote Thompson, and “are bound together by libertarian-tinged ideology, disdain if not hatred for [President Barack] Obama, and by fear that the government will take away their guns, their liberty, their money, their land, their Confederate flags, and, yes, Christmas.”

But the groups have supporters among some politicians, private entrepreneurs and conservative think tanks, which join in the call for local control of public lands, according to Thompson and other reporters.

For example, writer Lyndsey Gilpin in February documented that the controversial organization ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is increasingly involved in the effort to put public lands in state and, ultimately, private hands.  

The conference in Basalt is intended to provide locals with a glimpse into the publication’s public-lands reporting and writing over the past decade and more, and to offer attendees a chance to ask questions of the editorial staffers responsible for those reports.

The panel

All the panelists have long resumes in reporting on a variety of issues, according to biographical summaries provided to The Sopris Sun.

Calvert, a fourth-generation Wyoming native, was raised in the town of Pinedale and has worked as a foreign correspondent in several eastern nations.

Peterson, who grew up near Denver, has been a managing editor at HCN for five years and is now a senior editor writing about public lands, wildlife management, and other topics.

Thompson, also a native westerner, was owner and editor of the Silverton Standard & The Miner in Silverton, Colo., before being hired as editor in chief at HCN from 2007 to 2010. He then lived in Berlin, Germany, for a time before returning to Colorado.

Shorten, who has worked as a Moscow and White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times as well as an environmental correspondent for National Public Radio, is based in Washington, D.C., where she reports for HCN on how issues focused on the western U.S. play out in the nation’s capital.

Published in The Sopris Sun on June 9, 2016.

▲Top ▲Top