This Land Was Made for You and Me
||Wilderness ... was the challenge against which our
character as a people was formed. ... If the abstract dream
of human liberty and human dignity became, in America,
something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least
partially to the fact that we were, in subtle ways, subdued
by what we conquered.
The Land Was Ours Before We Were the Land's
Throughout the west, federal land is under assault.
A Nevada County Commissioner has claimed that Bureau of Land
Management land properly belongs to his county. His suit is now
before the courts.
Utah Congressman, Jim Hansen, has proposed that his state's
national parks be turned over to the state government, and the Utah
congressional delegation has endorsed a proposal that wilderness
areas be reduced to 1.8 million acres (one-third of the amount
proposed by environmentalists), and that even that wilderness be open
to incursions by roads, power lines, and dams.
Others have shown less regard for legal constraints. In Nevada, a
BLM office was dynamited. Threats against federal rangers have become
so frequent and credible that many are advised not to travel alone or
out of radio communication. And some are further advised not to be
seen in their federal uniforms.
The Sagebrush Rebellion of the eighties is back again, as many
Westerners demand control of their land, and defy the authority of a
federal government which they regard, in effect, as an alien foreign
power. This defiance, they claim, is in the tradition of the founding
fathers: an exercise of the right of rebellion against an oppressive
government. Furthermore, they assert that their protests are also
acts of legitimate civil disobedience against unlawful authority, in
the tradition of Gandhi and King.
The comparisons are inappropriate in both cases.
Park and forest rangers are not King George's redcoats. They are
agents of our representative government.
The colonies' rebellion against the British Crown was justified in
a list of complaints, found in the latter (and rarely read) portion
of the Declaration of Independence. A close examination of that list
will show that few if any of these complaints apply to the
administrators of the public lands. Moreover, that document will show
that the American Revolution was further justified by the failure of
the Crown to respond to civil and peaceful petitions of complaint, or
to act under the rule of legitimately enacted law.
Thus, once again, the analogy fails, for the new land rebellion is
against the very government that was demanded, and in fact
established, by those same patriots that rebelled against King
George. And for that reason, the government has a valid claim to
administer these lands in behalf of the general public. Indeed, the
phrase "owned by the federal government" is a misnomer: better to
say, "administered by the government, and owned by the people." The
administration of these lands is legitimate, simply because they are
managed according to the legal statutes of a legitimate government.
Thus if the lawbreakers who claim this land protest that the federal
government has no right to it, then they should make their claims
before the courts. And if they do not like the laws that have
established these public lands, then they should attempt to change
their status legitimately -- through their duly elected
representatives in the Congress. They should, in short, attempt to
persuade the owners to relinquish their land: the owners being, of
course, the rest of us.
But if instead they choose to deliberately violate of the laws of
a legitimate government -- as legitimacy is clearly defined in the
Declaration -- let us recognize that violation for what it is. Put
simply, such lawlessness is not simply a rebellion; it is also an act
of disloyalty -- it is Un-American.
In rebuttal, the wise use faction may claim that they are engaged,
not in rebellion, but in acts of civil disobedience -- as witnesses,
in the spirit of Gandhi and King, to the injustice of statute law.
Here too, the analogy and thus the argument fail on all counts save
To Martin Luther King, civil disobedience is an illegal,
non-violent act of principled protest, by an individual willing to
submit to the penalty of the law. (And in the case of King and his
protest, the illegality was temporary, as the laws which he protested
were in time determined to be in themselves illegal: violations of
the supreme law of the land, the Constitution.) Finally, it is a
course of action taken when all reasonable attempts at legal remedy
Are acts of protest against federal land control illegal? To be
sure, in some cases they are. But here the similarity ends, for the
illegal acts against the public lands and their agents stand little
chance of being vindicated by Constitutional principles.
Are the protesters non-violent? Ask the government employees whose
offices have been dynamited, whose vehicles have been sabotaged, and
who have received threats to their lives.
Do the perpetrators submit to legal penalties? In a few cases they
do, usually when the penalties are not severe .But rarely do the
dynamiters, the saboteurs and vandals, or the anonymous purveyors of
threats step forward to be recognized and to accept punishment.
Has the wise use faction exhausted all avenues of legal remedy of
their alleged complaints? This is unlikely, when, at the outset, the
perpetrators refuse to accept the legitimacy of the federal
And finally, are these acts of principled protest? So the
lawbreakers would have us believe. But just what is the principle
behind the protest? An end of outside federal interference with the
use of "their" land? But it is not their land, it is ours. And if it
were their land, they would have to pay taxes on it, and either
manage it wisely for sustained use, or else mine it in the short term
and then abandon it as wasteland (as so many of their predecessors
did). Instead, they pay user's fees to the owners, namely the rest of
us, through our agents in the federal government whose task it is to
manage it wisely for sustained use. The motive for the protest, then,
seems to come to this: no taxes, no fees, no constraints -- in a
word, greed. This in the name of "wise use." Little room for
Another claim appeals to the principle of local control, and
contends that the existence of federal land violates the Tenth
Amendment -- namely, that powers not enumerated in the Constitution
revert to the states. Thus, they argue, the federal lands belong to
the states, not to the so-called government in Washington. But if
that government is legitimate, it is not for private citizens to
regard their interpretation of the law and the Constitution as
binding on their public behavior. That is the task of the courts.
However, the states rights argument has deeper and more troubling
implications, that reach to our identity as a nation .That identity
emerged as Patrick Henry told the Virginia legislature that "I am not
a Virginian, I am an American. "It was forged through the heat of a
Civil War ,whereby the grammar of our identity was transformed from
"The United States are" to "The
United States is." When I travel
abroad, my passport proclaims, not that I am a Californian, but that
I am an American citizen protected by the government of the United
States and possessing all rights guaranteed by its Constitution. What
American would want it otherwise?
But the "wise use" faction would weaken these ties that bind us as
a people. For example, if Congressman Hansen has his way, the
national park system, belonging to all of us, will be balkanized and
apportioned to the states: Bryce Canyon of Utah, Grand Canyon of
Arizona, Yosemite of California, and Yellowstone of Wyoming (with
adjacent slivers in Idaho and Montana). And then, who knows, Bryce
Canyon of Disney, Grand canyon of Time-Warner, and Yosemite of MCA?
Do we really wish to be identified once again by our states rather
than by our common body-politic: as Utahns, Arizonans, Californians,
rather than as Americans? All this as we are being bound ever more
closely through commerce, rapid transportation and instant
communication? Have we learned nothing from the failed experiment of
the Articles of Confederation?
If the wise use faction so covets the public lands, and if the
states are willing to administer the federal portion, why not simply
sell it off, apply the receipts to the national debt, and be done
with the controversy? Why have public lands at all -- at least on the
Perhaps the strongest argument for the maintenance and
preservation of federal land goes beyond words, and is based in raw
consciousness and fundamental emotion -- the overwhelming feelings
that we experience in the midst of such land.
These feelings came to my mind as I first began to assemble these
words while driving through the Colorado Rockies toward Denver. I was
fully aware that these mountains, streams and forests belonged to no
one and to everyone. Thanks to the foresight of our predecessors,
they were the common heritage of us all, as American citizens.
Knowing this, when one is in public land, one has a different sense
of the place. Not only because it is our land, but also because we
are its people. Thus the very sight of this splendor when we are
within it -- and when we are away from it the very knowledge of its
existence -- all this binds us as a nation and a people.
Yet there are some among us that would have us believe that we
will be better off if we divide it up and parcel it out to the
highest bidders! And for what? Further east, closer to Denver, we saw
the answer as we left the national forest, and came to the tailings
slopes of the abandoned mines, and the shops and settlements in the
once-beautiful Clear Creek canyon. This is the alternative that we
are being offered.
Think of those unforgettable Ansel Adams pictures of Yosemite
Falls and of the Grand Tetons beyond the Snake River. And if you are
fortunate, reflect upon your experiences as you stood at those very
places. Was not that experience enhanced by the realization that the
land belonged, not to anyone in particular, but to all of us, in
general, as Americans -- even perhaps as earthlings? Consider the
experience, upon entering a canyon by canoe, or a trail afoot, of
encountering the sign "Preserved in Perpetuity for Public Enjoyment
by the National Park Service." Compare that with the experience of
another sign: "Private Property: No Trespassing!" The wise use
faction complains that the preservationists seek to lock up the
resources of the wilderness. Compare such a "lock up" with a "lock
out," whereby we might become aliens in our own land.
The "wisest use" of the land was that ordained by the Congress
that wrote the National Park Service Act of 1917, setting aside these
lands "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." No
argument advanced since then -- and there have been many -- has come
close to justifying the dismantling of that legacy.
July 28, 1995
Valaam Island, Lake Ladoga
Northeast of St. Petersburg, Russia
Copyright, 1995, by Ernest Partridge