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Left vs. Right: Burns, Oregon

Left vs. Right: Burns, Oregon

A recent study found that turning federal land in Utah over to that state would cost Utah taxpayers $275 million per year

Editor’s note: This is an email conversation between Alan Webber, a businessman who sought the 2014 Democratic nomination for governor, and Paul Gessing, a Libertarian who heads the Rio Grande Foundation. The topic was the occupation of a federal wildlife refuge headquarters in Oregon by anti-government activists.

Paul Gessing: While we disapprove of their methods, the protesters who have occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon, have a point about the scope of federal land holdings in the West.

Currently, 28 percent of the U.S. and 42 percent of New Mexico are under federal control. No one is talking about privatizing Yellowstone (or Carlsbad Caverns), but the federal estate continues to grow and we at the Rio Grande Foundation believe that the Feds have more than enough land.

It is time to shift most if not all U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands to state control where leaders who are closer to the people and understand the issues of the West can do a better job of stewardship for the environment and taxpayers alike.

Alan Webber: If the Bundy’s have a point, Paul, I sure wish you’d tell us what it is!

And by the way, you never explain exactly why “it is time” to turn federal land over the states. If it’s for the reasons the Bundys are on the rampage, it’s so we can drill, drain and damage the public’s land in the name of resource extraction and private financial gain.

Perhaps you think it’ll save taxpayer money. But a recent study found that turning federal land in Utah over to that state would cost Utah taxpayers $275 million per year. No bargain there!

If it all comes down to economics, let’s get real: The benefit of federal lands is not in extraction – it’s in tourism and recreation.

The Bundys don’t get that. Do you, Paul?

Gessing: I’m not sure what assumptions these Utah researchers made, but I have numerous studies showing that state management of BLM and Forest Service lands will result in both increased cost efficiency and better management. Who knows New Mexico lands better, the locals or a bureaucrat behind a desk in Washington?

Fires have burned out of control in the West on federal lands due in part to poor federal management techniques that allowed forests to become overly dense.

To this day, Native Americans manage and thin their forests. Washington lets them burn. The Little Bear fire burned more than 35,000 acres of National Forest land near Ruidoso in the summer of 2012. Locals, including the president of the Mescalero Apaches, testified in Congress about his tribe’s success in managing the forests and contrasted it to the failure of the Forest Service.

Webber: Paul, you keep shifting your argument: Now it’s about local control! Following your argument about local control to its logical conclusion, you’re going to find yourself re-fighting the Civil War. After all, who knew the South better than the slave owners?

No, there’s libertarian ideology hiding behind all this obfuscation. It’s simple: Like the Koch Brothers who fund the American Lands Council, you want to strip away federal protections from some of the most spectacular land owned by the American people and open it up for private gain. Drill, baby, drill! That’s the real motive here.

And as for those “bureaucrats” in Washington, D.C., you’re talking about Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot and Stewart Udall, to name a few. I trust their vision more than the simplistic slogans of the Ammon Bundys of the world.

Gessing: Whether “state” control qualifies as “local” or not is irrelevant. It’s a lot more “local” than Washington, D.C.

And, no, we are not talking about national parks here. We are discussing “multiple use” National Forests and BLM lands. Now, there are indeed a lot of trees on those Forest Service lands, but that doesn’t make them all “spectacular.” And the BLM controls lands nearly the size of West Virginia in New Mexico alone. Much of these are vast prairie.

It isn’t just the Kochs or Bundys who have concerns with federal land policies. Reies Lopez Tijerina’s Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid back in 1967 was due to federal encroachment on land grants here in Northern New Mexico.

The powerful like Teddy Roosevelt have used government for decades to push around those who stand in their way.
Webber: The history of New Mexico land grants and the Oregon occupation are two completely different (ball) parks! And when you accuse Teddy “The Trustbuster” Roosevelt of not standing up for the little people – them’s fighting words!

Let’s try to cut through all this false history. This dispute isn’t about who controls the land. It’s about what we value.

It’s about the enduring value of conservation – of handing down unspoiled land from generation to generation – versus the short-term fixation on extraction and development.

I’m going to give my last words to Teddy Roosevelt, who understood why nature mattered: “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” That’s what’s really at stake.

Gessing: I am happy to quote Teddy Roosevelt as well. Alan’s hero has some doozies including, “We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”

Roosevelt is a great hero for “progressives” because he didn’t respect limits on his power like checks and balances. To him, power flowed from a “great man” and that if you stood in his way, you should be dealt with harshly.

Ranchers and others who try to make a living on and around federal lands must often feel like Native Americans of Teddy Roosevelt’s time, trying to avoid being squashed by a far-off bureaucracy.


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Ashley Kurtz is a freelance theater critic.

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