Oregon Standoff, Energy, and Federal Abuses

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on January 8, 2016 - 12:25pm

BuffaloA U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) office is being occupied by armed zealots, and this is what the Department of the Interior, the mother agency of FWS, send out as its weekly update email: “Sparky” the bison hit by lightning in 2013 is still going strong. Really?

I’ll state this up front so there’s no room for misinterpretation: Ammon Bundy and his posse are serious lawbreakers whose actions I completely condemn. However, the federal abuses leading us to this sorry situation today deserve honest attention and systemic change. I can think of many things the Department should be discussing with the public today.

An honest discussion of how ranchers in the vicinity of the now-occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were slowly pushed out by bureaucrats intent on expanding the size of the refuge. The Hammonds, more tenacious than their neighbors, were harassed by federal officials over many years until ultimately they were prosecuted and convicted for setting a back fire that accidentally burned a small portion of BLM lands. Never mind that there are examples of BLM fires damaging adjacent private lands. Just as EPA will face no repercussions from its spill into the Animas River while it imposes heavy fines on those who cause much smaller accidental spills, BLM doesn’t face repercussions when it damages private property. 

The situation arises from too much federal ownership of land in the West. Whereas in the East and Mid-West lands were transferred as private property to individuals for farms, by the time the West was settled the government retained a vast amount of land. Ranchers are not “freeloaders” as they have been unfairly characterized by those who enjoy their own private property. They are admirably trying to make a living while feeding America, but are too often at the mercy of the federal government.

Although ranchers have been working the land for many generations, federal land use policies have shifted significantly under their feet over the last few decades. Whereas the federal government used to balance “multiple-uses” of public lands with conservation, today it all too often adopts a conservation-only mentality.

The federal government administers 700 million acres, the vast majority in the West. These lands include not just National Parks, wilderness, wildlife refuges and other lands designated for conservation, but also hundreds of millions of acres of multiple-use lands that are appropriate for ranching, mining, energy,  and other productive uses. For many years, the Interior Department balanced conservation and economic development by ensuring productive activities adhere to strict environmental standards that protect wildlife, endangered species, cultural resources, air, and water. Now too often policies just involve squeezing out the productive activities.

Productive activities on multiple-use public lands help build the wealth of the nation and provide the products that Americans need to sustain life. Ranching, mining, and energy development provide the livelihoods of millions of hard-working Americans and are the lifeblood of rural communities. But there is a conscious effort to remove productive activities from public lands.

Environmental activists, and heavy-handed bureaucrats under their sway, often consider local rural communities as inconvenient rednecks whose needs are subordinate to policies that expand federal control. Who cares if ranchers are pushed off their lands? Who cares if native Alaskans can’t get to the hospital? Who cares if energy workers and coal miners lose their jobs? The federal government claims it needs more land to protect birds or desert tortoises, but it’s really about control and power.

Today, Western Energy Alliance commented on just such an unlawful move by the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under pressure from the environmental lobby, plans to retroactively cancel oil and natural gas leases in Colorado’s White River National Forest that were sold over ten years ago. Retroactive cancelling these contracts that grant property rights is completely contrary to American principles of jurisprudence. The action breaks contracts with companies that have invested millions to deliver energy to Americans, and kills jobs in local communities.

Like ranchers, energy workers are being driven from the land. Who cares that these workers are delivering energy to Americans while also paying billions in royalties to the federal government? Who cares if jobs are lost? Pay no attention–just look at Sparky.