Privatizing Public Land: Can We Think About This?


The newspapers report that the billionaire Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan, have purchased some 38,000 acres of land on the Joseph Plains in Idaho County and apparently have closed access to local residents for hunting and recreation. Now Farris and Dan Wilks are easily worthy of a WC blog post themselves, but that’s not the focus here. The Wilks brothers have also purchased some 300,000 acres in Montana in recent years. And closed public access to and across that land, too. That’s what private land means, right? As opposed to public land. Only the owners get to use it. In this case, a couple of billionaires from Texas.

As the petulant, gun-toting welfare queens continue their crime spree at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, all in the name of federal transfer of public lands to private hands, that’s the consequence. If those thugs get their way, we – all the rest of Americans – lose the right to use the lands. We won’t be able to hike, hunt, fish or chase birds on the land any longer. It will become private.

One of WC’s favorite writers, David James Duncan, describes one of the consequences of privatization in a powerful way. Which WC will lamely paraphrase here. In the case of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it is an oasis in the vast Oregon high desert. Birds, after running the equivalent of a couple of marathons in spring and fall migration, depend on the water and forage that is available there. Privatization means that the new owners can, in effect, tell those migrating birds, “Sorry, you can’t get any water or food here. Keep moving. Fly another marathon to somewhere else.”

You say that private ownership doesn’t mean loss of habitat? The more fool you. Both the thugs at Malheur and the Wilks brothers think that open water and wild land are being wasted, it isn’t being used. They want it for farming, ranching and, in the case of the Wilks brothers, fracking, which is how they became billionaires. You say they won’t exclude others from using the land? It’s happening right now in Texas, Montana and Idaho.

The exclusion of everyone else isn’t the only bad consequence of privatization of federal lands. The criminals at Malheur seem to assume Congress and the Bureau of Land Management simply woke up one morning and arbitrarily decided to regulate its lands in the West. Congress reacted to two very serious problems: monopolization of range lands by the big ranches and severe overgrazing of the rangelands.

In the late 1800s, the big ranches with their greater financial resources installed barbed wire fences across tens of thousands of acres of federally owned land. And they seized and controlled the limited sources of water in the arid and semi-arid West. They squeezed out the smaller ranchers.

And, in the mistaken belief that there was an unlimited supply of free forage on the federal lands, livestock herds grew rapidly on the public rangelands. They were severely overcrowded and depleted by the late 1800s. In 1870, there were 4.1 million beef cattle and 4.8 million sheep in the 17 western states. By 1900, there were 19.6 million beef cattle and 25.1 million sheep.

As a consequence of greed and ignorance, the overtaxed, extremely exploited ranges became severely degraded. The Tragedy of the Commons was being acted out yet again. That was why Congress acted. Not to oppress “the little guy.” The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was designed to protect “the little guy.” Not just from the better-financed and sometimes unscrupulous larger operators, but also from the folly of their own demonstrably bad grazing practices. Because it was the Great Depression, the federal government issued grazing permits at a deep discount. A discount that still exists today.

And the ignorant crooks trespassing at Malheur chose as their stage a spectacularly poor choice. Malheur NWR was created by President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect lands around Malher and Harney Lakes still in federal ownership. On Aug. 18 1908, he signed an executive order establishing the 81,786 acre Malheur Lake Refuge, which also encompassed nearby Haney and Mud Lakes, “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The largest single addition to Malheur was in 1935, when the Swift Meatpacking Corp. voluntarily sold 65,000 acres to the federal government, funding for which came from Duck Stamp sales and New Deal monies. The Refuge is now at 187,757 acres. President Teddy Roosevelt conveyed only federal lands. All subsequent acquisitions were voluntary sales for fair market value.1

When you cut through all the belligerent posturing, threats and noise, this is what privatization comes to: the thugs at Malheur want us to give them our land, because they have been permitted to use it. And once they own it, greed and ignorance will again devastate through overgrazing and extirpation of native species. In the process, we will be denied access to the land. These clowns want the West to look like most of Texas: barbed wire adorned with wind-blown plastic grocery bags, and unending No Trespassing signs.

WC personally suspects that cattle ranching in the Great Basin is a dying industry, that even the deeply discounted the permitted grazing is simply not economic in an international economy. And that Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s crimes are the death throes of his father’s trade.2 They won’t solve the economics of cattle ranching by paying a market rent for grazing permits. But they would wreck some of America’s remaining wild lands.

  1. Of course, all of the land was stolen from the Paiute Indians, who had lived there for centuries. But they were summarily evicted in 1878 and marched off to the Yakama Indian Reservation in southeastern Washington. If anyone owns the land by “natural right” it is the surviving Paiute Indians. But Ammon Bundy’s head would explode if he were made to think about this. 
  2. The Bundy boys are not themselves cattle ranchers. Their father, an unindicted criminal in Nevada, is a cattle rancher. Ammon Bundy lives in a Phoenix, Arizona, suburb and runs a valet car fleet service. Ryan Bundy lives in Cedar City, Utah, and owns a construction company.