24 February 2016

Rural America and Federal Land

Oregon. The southeast counties right to left are Malheur, Harney, Lake.
I have had a good life. I was born in a small university town in Oregon to well off parents. Turning fourteen I got to live in Mexico for half a year and experience a new culture, but I also learned a lot about my own country by leaving and observing it from afar. It was while living in Mexico that I realized the United States is the preeminent and most affluent country in the world. This was a rather shocking revelation to a teenager who never really thought about the freakishly lucky conditions of his birth.

My life continued to get better and I continued to appreciate traveling and exploring the world's mix of peoples. I spent a summer in Spain, then joined the US Air Force, which took me to Texas and Mississippi for almost a year. The military sent me to Qatar for half a year where I baked in the sun with camels and worked alongside people from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Palestine. I went to college as an electronics engineer then lived in China for a year before starting a wonderful job for a power utility in Portland, Oregon. I've also seen Nicaragua, Ecuador, Greece, and Israel thanks to my access to wealth and a US passport.

In all my travels and studies, I've only increasingly appreciated the peace, stability, fairness, and economic opportunities in the United States. Even if China surpasses the US in GDP, it will be decades before it can become a more desirable place to live.

Visiting America

Then I visited a new culture that presented an interesting challenge. My wonderful job took me to field offices all over the northwestern United States in small remote towns that most people would never pass through. I did not have any trouble associating with people of different backgrounds. But I had just come out of a decade of international travel and university study, where people talk about technology, sustainability, and how to fix the world's problems. What I ran into in rural towns were discussions about what to do when the government comes to take away all your guns and serious opinions about Obama being born in Kenya. It was a culture shock.

As a visitor to this new culture, I could see what was happening and what the issues were. The longer you live in the rural country, the more individualistic you become. The longer you live in a dense urban city, the more socialistic you become. A common plea I heard from people in the country was that they wanted the government to just leave them alone. This makes some sense in remote areas where you're mostly isolated and see government decisions as intrusions into your personal space. However, those attitudes would quickly die in a city surrounded by a million people who have to deal with each other. In my experience city dwellers would prefer to limit access to weapons, whereas rural folk tend to think everyone should have an assault rifle.

The other force driving people was economic hardship from a new world economy that abandoned them to misery.

The vast majority of people I ran into were good, friendly, loving, and hard working people. But just like on the urban left, there were extremists who were angry, racist, ignorant, and talked about overthrowing the government, or stashing food, weapons, and gold for when society collapses in a cannibalistic dystopian future.

Barack Hussein Obama

Then I noticed a sharp change in tone when Obama was elected in 2008.

In 2009 I had a three month tour in Redmond, Oregon, a definitively small rural town surrounded by small rural towns. The conservative right in the country were being whipped up into a frenzy against an enemy that didn't actually exist. It got even worse when the health care law was being debated. Conservative radio hosts and Fox News in general were profiting from fear and spreading misinformation. They were not very different from the Interahamwe radio from Hotel Rwanda, except it was in my backyard. The level of outright lying and manipulation was staggering. 

I heard Glenn Beck talk about his "movement" of protesters as if it was a growing militia that he was leading to save the country from internal enemies that have "abandoned the rule of law." I heard Rush Limbaugh say that Obama was, "actively working in opposition to the Constitution." I heard Laura Ingraham say that ACORN is a "criminal organization." I heard Sean Hannity tell everyone that the health care bill is "a total lie and deception on the American people", that it's a Nazi policy, and that it will have death panels killing people off to save the government money. They defended the right to torture. They encouraged listeners to rise up in creative ways in opposition to the government. They said that Obama "has a deep seeded hatred for white people." They played a song on the air called, "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon".

Their followers in rural America went to Obama rallies with weapons and wore signs that read, "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (Thomas Jefferson: 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'), it was their followers that shouted outside the White House "Hang the lying Muslim traitor!", it was their followers that started declaring themselves "sovereign citizens" and decided to not pay taxes, and it was their followers who stockpiled gold, weapons, and ammunition as soon as Obama was elected and reelected.

I gave a lot of honest reflection to the issues people were bringing up. I considered whether there was any real injustice or government overreach or any breaches of the US Constitution (I read every word of it). My conclusion: absolutely not. Any perception of totalitarianism only came from half-truths or outright lies. This creates a serious problem for the United States.

True Patriots

It only got worse.

As seen on the internets
In the 1990s Cliven Bundy decided that he could ranch on federal land without paying grazing fees. After almost twenty years of letters, warnings, court orders, and fines accumulating to over $1M, federal agents came to seize his property and were met with a bunch of rifles pointing at them. Bundy had created a fictional story about how the federal government is not allowed by the Constitution to own the land, and further fooled locals into believing that the feds were coming for no good reason. Like a Ponzi scheme that went on too long, Bundy could not have possibly paid the fees so he latched on to any idea that could save him. After two separate courts decided against him, federal agents stood down and did not seize his property. This successful defiance lit a fire under a bunch of anti-government groups that believed that an inevitable showdown loomed large in their future.

Where have I heard this phrase before?
Then last month Bundy's sons and a dozen others showed up at a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon, a short distance from where I had worked in 2009. They repeated Cliven Bundy's claim that the federal government has no authority to own and manage large tracts of land in the western states and demanded that the two men who received jail sentences for setting fires on the land be set free. This grew into them demanding that the refuge be returned to "the people".

As an outside observer familiar with the delusional paranoia on the far right, I was honestly sad that this had gotten so far. The people at the refuge believed what they were preaching, along with thousands of others in small towns throughout several states. Liberals and the mass media thought the whole situation was hilarious and expected them to be under arrest or dead within a short amount of time.

After three weeks of largely leaving them alone with their snacks, the FBI arrested the leadership during a traffic stop in which one person, LaVoy Finicum, was killed. Within hours a supporter who had been in the vehicles during the shooting claimed that their vehicles were riddled with bullets (turned out to be stun grenades) and that LaVoy was shot with his hands in the air. The FBI soon released video showing LaVoy avoiding arrest, almost running over an agent, and reaching for his gun before being shot. The people who wanted to believe in the conspiracy continued believing that LaVoy was killed outside of the law. An investigation will take another month to complete, but the conspiracies are running wild and LaVoy is being declared a "patriot" that was "executed".

Federal Lands

Those hurling ridicule at the anti-government crowd also have an obligation to investigate their concerns and address them. Those protesters sincerely believe that they were fighting against a tyrannical government and they used the language of the American revolutionary war. It is in everyone's interest to listen to their grievances.

If you want to wade through constitutional law regarding federal land ownership, here is an excellent and relatively short article by the Heritage Foundation. In short, there are two clauses of the US Constitution that are relevant: the enclave clause,

The Congress shall have Power To ...exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.
And the property clause,

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States....
The first addresses the sovereignty of the capital district, military installations, and other strictly federal land purposes, and guarantees that those properties that are purchased by and for the good of the United States are not subject to the whim of state governments. The second addresses non-state territories and "other property" belonging to the federal government. The federal government has sovereignty over new territories, but when they became states, the federal land became state land and then would be subject to the enclave clause. The federal government may also have "proprietary" ownership of lands, just like a private citizen may own land, but the states have sovereignty over that land.

So there goes an argument that in between territory and enclave, the federal government lacks constitutional authority to manage state lands that are not enclaves. However, the property clause mentions "other property" and this has always been a squishy area for interpretation. If a state petitioned to have the proprietary land ownership transferred to the state, they would almost certainly be able to, and over one quarter of the land in the United States could change hands this way. But states generally want to retain those lands as public and enjoy the benefit of not having to pay for their management. A second question is whether Congress can manage the use of the lands and, for example, ban or regulate hunting on them.

The ultimate arbiter of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court, has unequivocally supported the basic right of federal land ownership, and stated that the authority to manage the use of the lands is "without limitation". The non-enclave land is still under the jurisdiction of the state and they also ruled that the state does not need to actively consent in order to retain federal land.

And here is the huge gaping hole in the argument of the Bundys: the Supreme Court is the only institution that can interpret the Constitution authoritatively to resolve disputes, and the Supreme Court very clearly disagrees with them. They are trying to enforce their personal (erroneous) interpretation of the Constitution in a way that benefits them financially and they are disregarding the system of law. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance in calling yourself a patriotic supporter of the Constitution while ignoring court orders and resisting the government by force.

The Bundys also tried to bypass state ownership and asked for federal land to go straight into private or some kind of community ownership. Their methods, ideology, and demands were incoherent and fruitless, bordering on communism or anarchy. Their dialogue sounded like the ramblings of the communist party.

Despite the rhetoric, the fights are not about the Constitution and freedom, they are about access to wealth.

The Timber Industry

The demands and grievances of the Bundy clan were hollow and their methods brought ridicule from the left. However, there is another storyline in this debate that should not be overlooked.

Rural economies have been left in the dust. Numerous small towns around Oregon were built up around the timber industry over a hundred years ago. My grandfather and great-grandfather worked in mills in three areas of the state, (Enterprise, Dallas, and Coos Bay) moving to where the jobs were. Several forces ground the timber prosperity to a halt.
  1. The easy money that came from harvesting mature virgin forests was unsustainable and couldn't last indefinitely. 
  2. The timber industry was largely unrestrained and unregulated until the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s the industry was hammered with several state and federal laws that forced them to harvest responsibly, or not at all when it interfered with endangered species or the other environmental concerns. 
  3. Globalization provided new markets for the timber, but also brought competition.
  4. Forest fires destroyed vast amounts of the best timber in the world. The timber industry both started the fires during operations, and contributed to their intensity by suppressing small fires.
  5. Most importantly, technology advances reduced the manpower needed to harvest trees. A single operator can harvest 2,000 trees in a day with a machine that efficiently processes an entire tree into board lengths in a single sweeping motion. 
The decline of the timber industry and unskilled labor was practically inevitable. The counties in Oregon that couldn't integrate into the modern economy saw a decline in wages and population. In Coos County, where my mother grew up, the public school was recently dropped to four days a week to cut costs, contributing to a spiral of decline.

The Rural Divide

Harney County was once the most prosperous in the state, per capita. Now the old decommissioned lumber mill sits empty and rusting and incomes are second worst in the state. In 2008 the last timber company in the area, and a manufacturing plant both shut down and laid off a few hundred people out of the 7,000 that lived in the county. The only bright spot in the economy is ranching, thus the desire to confiscate federal lands for private use.

Paradoxically, federal grazing fees are cheaper than private ones, and management prevents destruction from overgrazing, keeping the land viable. But federal management also comes with bureaucracy, and somewhat arbitrary limitations like when some obscure insect might be mating. This can infuriate ranchers who take a financial hit. Or in the case of what sparked the Malheur Wildlife Refuge takeover, the jail sentences for two ranchers seemed excessive for the crime. One rancher in Oregon wrote that, "Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules."

People are suffering and losing access to education and jobs, and nobody is paying attention to their plight. In the middle of that comes a wave of Mexican migrants appearing to undercut their pay, a President whose middle name is Hussein, media lying to them for profit, and an inefficient bureaucracy that makes it harder for them to eek out a living in order to save some animals.

No politician can replicate the miracle of the 1950s and bring back widespread middle class jobs where someone can work in a factory and make $80,000 a year. Some people are having to adjust to a lower standard of living. That makes them pissed off and more likely to fall for simple answers to complex problems. That's why populism and protectionism are so strongly felt now on both the right and left. But there is a particular virulent brand of it on the right, one that points blame at progressivism, regulation, and foreigners.

In western states this political divide follows population density.

In Oregon, half of the state's population lives in two large metro areas, and elections play to the left. Laws that regulate the rural economy are made by people who have never been there. It takes a toll when you see elections going the "wrong way" all your life with no hope for change. This has led to a statehood movement in eastern Oregon and Washington. A national debate about how to administer and manage western lands would be appropriate, and chopping up the state borders should be in the forefront of options. After all, they are largely arbitrary, and the Constitution provides methods for changing them.

On the topic of proper state borders, I already made an attempt to redraw them in a previous article, 29 Nations of the Earth. That article also redraws national boundaries, but you can ignore that and focus on the five states in the northwestern United States. I proposed that land would be better administered by dividing the Columbia River basin into an upper Columbia (western MT), Snake River (south ID and east OR), middle Columbia (central WA and OR), lower Columbia (west OR and SW WA), and Puget sound area. The Klamath River basin and some of the endorheic lakes would be another state, and the list could go on.

The point is, the arbitrary nature of the current state boundaries has a lot to do with the feeling of helplessness and disempowerment that is compounding the anger coming from economically depressed counties. 

There are four things that governments can work on to fix the problems in the rural west and avoid conflict. 

  • Improve rural economies. This is truly difficult, and there are no simple solutions.
  • Change the political landscape. Creating new states would resolve a lot, but it is almost unheard of and beyond most people's conceptions of what is possible.
  • Changing land from federal to state ownership could resolve some issues, but requires more resources from the state. 
  • Make the BLM more friendly to locals. Changing the laws and regulations for federal land is the easiest adjustment. With power comes great responsibility. The BLM is holding all the power, and should have more consideration for the human cost of their policies. 

If nothing changes, expect more armed conflicts. 

1 comment:

  1. Well written and covers so much. Growing up in rural Montana I made the same observations. Though I would not say “all” rural people, but rather most. Those who leave to get an education at a diverse university, even when returning to the rural area bring with them new found ideas that make sense.
    Another aspect I have observed is that those whose personalities or characters that are open to new ideas tend to leave to better themselves, leaving behind those who feel powerless and as victims of the government.
    You touched on the extremism on the far left, and though this is not an article about them, their own narrow mindedness fuels much of the extreme rights fears and they work together against each other.
    Bringing local opinions and solutions to the table, as you have suggested is likely the best starting place.