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OpEdge: The Oregon Occupiers and the Politics of Privatization

Marc Jampole
January 11, 2016

by Marc Jampole

Malheur-National-Wildlife-RefugeIT SEEMS as if the real goal of Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is to take permanent possession of government land as an act of armed rebellion. That’s the simplest way to understand their actions and their statements.

They are playing a game of chicken with the federal government. The current frigidly rightwing winds blowing throughout the country would make an armed attempt by the police or army to dislodge this rag-tag army a probable public relations disaster for President Obama. Bill Clinton faced a lot of criticism for the Waco siege and its violent conclusion, in an age much more hostile to gun rights and secession fantasies than today. Imagine if a police force killed a few of Ammon Bundy’s buddies.

But I don’t think Bundy is suicidal. He just plays a good game of poker. He figures that he can stay on the land as long as he likes, as long as he doesn’t start shooting at people.

a_aaa-al-bundyGood poker player, yes. Good PR hack, not so much. The problem Bundy faces is that everyone has lined up against his group — the people he’s trying to help, the local authorities, and even the politicians who pontificated on the rights of his father not to pay nominal fees to have his cattle feed on public lands that tax dollars maintain. Plus wacko groups from the Northwest’s thriving survivalist movement have descended on the Refuge, looking to hook up with Bundy’s group. The more people out of his control, the greater the possibility that someone does something stupid that gives the federal government ethical permission to charge in. I’m pretty sure that Ammon Bundy is of the “discretion is the better part of valor” school, adhering to the Falstaffian belief that being a martyr is great PR for the cause but hazardous to your health. Come to think of it, a fictional Bundy married to a redhead with two children often expressed the same sentiment.

ALL IRONY ASIDE, the broader issue is one of property ownership. The Bundys and their supporters don’t believe that the federal government should own any land. What they don’t realize is that if private hands held all land, the Bundys would have to pay market-rate fees to the owners of the land that the government now allows ranchers to use at low rates subsidized by taxes. But the Bundys probably figure that they’ll be the ones who own the land and charge big bucks for its use.

The concept of public ownership of land is at least as old as the concept of kingship. Governments hold land for the public good in virtually every country of the world, from the most rightwing to the most leftist. A majority of all land in the United States has been public since U.S. armies took it from the Native American tribes in the 19th century. And those tribes tended to have a kind of shared concept of ownership in which no one owned the land, but everyone could enjoy it. If you think it’s a weird custom, consider that those readers who own houses may not own the drilling rights below the land surface and those in co-op apartments own only shares in a corporation that gives them the right to occupy their domicile. Every civilization complicates the issue of private property.

As the New York Times has reported, there is an active movement to transfer public lands from federal to state hands, especially out West. As usual, Koch money is behind some of the efforts to neuter the federal government. One state legislature, Utah’s, has passed a law demanding control of the federal lands in the state. The government has ignored the state.

TO UNDERSTAND why the ultra-right wants to transfer federal lands to the state level, we need only analyze what states have done on national issues over the past ten years. Working on the state level, whose legislatures tend to be controlled by rural conservatives, has enabled Republicans to pass a large number of laws that make it harder to vote and harder to get an abortion or food stamps and easier to carry a gun. Those in favor of having states own public land must figure they can then whittle away environmental regulations and usage limits, and perhaps eventually convince states to sell the land at typical government discounts.

There are two major conceptual problems with giving the states federal lands. Keep in mind that most of the land in question is uninhabited forests, wetlands, mountains, prairies, and deserts. The issues involved in wildlife management, fire control, species protection, resource use, strategic resource management as an aspect of defense policy, and environmental degradation go beyond the confines of any state. Addressing these concerns involves an enormous long term investment that the states can’t afford. Without tax dollars from other states with fewer square acres of public lands, individual states would be unable to manage these large holdings.

The privatization of the government has so far mostly led to a shift in the division of the income generated by providing the privatized goods and services. Management takes home a bigger share of the pie and most employees take home a small piece. Privatization is one of several policy changes the federal government made beginning in the Reagan era that have led to the rapid increase in wealth and income inequality we have experienced. Is there any reason to think that privatization of public land would be any different?

Let’s try to imagine how privatization of public land would play out: If the government gave away a fair share plot to every citizen, that would represent a crude form of communism, and we know the Bundys, Kochs and others toying with concept of massive land privatization don’t want that. No, what they probably have in mind is an auction or sale of public land. Large corporate interest will end up buying and then benefiting from most of it.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.