Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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This Land Was Made for You and Me

Ernest Partridge

(July, 1995)

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.

Wallace Stegner


The Land Was Ours Before We Were the Land's

Robert Frost

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 one.

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 have failed.

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 government.

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 principle here.

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 federal level?

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

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .