Think twice before objecting to ‘government land’

Inside the Outdoors

One standout item of recent national news is the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon by persons protesting federal government land ownership in the West. They’re demanding that the federal government divvy up this wildlife refuge land among local residents for grazing and logging. The protesters arrived in this rural Oregon community initially saying they were there to support two locals being sent to prison for starting fires on federal land. That pair have already reported to a federal prison in California after serving part of their sentences locally. 

It soon became evident that the big issue here was not the fate of two arsonists who will now do time in prison, but displeasure with government land ownership. Though it may be more prevalent in the West, government land ownership is not an issue unheard of here in Minnesota. Several state lawmakers have proposed blocking private citizens’ sales of their own land to government agencies unless equal acreages of public land are sold back into private hands. Thus, willing sellers of land for such purposes as state Wildlife Management Areas, parks or natural areas, could – under such proposals – be prevented from doing so.

When the federal duck stamp fee for hunters was recently raised from $15 to $25, one of the requirements in the bill passed by the U.S. Congress was that the increased funds generated could not be used to acquire title to more land. The funds had to be used chiefly to manage other wildlife lands. Many in the conservation community objected to this restriction because our country is fast losing its valuable wetlands and undeveloped landscapes. But it was believed by others that the bill represented the “half a loaf” that was “better than none.” 

Considering all this, it’s clear that the armed Oregon protesters are not the only ones concerned about government land ownership. What’s different is that here in Minnesota, and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., opponents have not used threats and armed confrontation. It’s been suggested that we would call it terrorism if the Oregon protesters wore ethnic clothing instead of cowboy hats and boots. 

Beyond the issue of government land ownership, there is a great deal of distaste for government in general these days. One reason is that it’s a lot easier to blame a nameless, faceless institution for things you’re unhappy about than to blame individuals and be able to back it up with facts. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that the lawmakers we send to Washington seem to be in endless gridlock, are largely unwilling to work together and accomplish little. One reason so-called political outsiders like presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have attracted support in the last two election cycles is that they are not part of government. This by itself doesn’t make someone a good candidate, but is an expression of voter frustration with business-as-usual politicians.

None of which makes government ownership of land necessarily a bad thing. Minnesota is one of the states with the highest proportion of land owned by county, state or federal government. Some is county tax-forfeited land, acquired by a county when a taxpayer is unable to pay his or her taxes. Such lands are commonly open to the public for many recreational uses. Then there are our state forests, state Wildlife Management Areas and Scenic and Natural Areas as well as state parks. We have two major national forests, the Superior and the Chippewa, as well as several National Wildlife Refuges, a National Park in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and numerous federal Waterfowl Production Areas. Virtually all are open to public use.

Perhaps we’re looking at it wrong if we describe such lands as being the property of the government. If, for official purposes, they’re considered “owned” by local, state or federal government, they’re actually the property of the citizens within the boundaries of such units of government, small or large. Like anything jointly owned, it’s not our right to use such property in a way that harms its value to others. There are generally rules we have to follow in using public lands. We may even have to pay a fee for the privilege. Such places need to be maintained and managed if they are to have value to the broader citizenry, just as our own property does. 

What’s more, the demand of the Oregon protesters to turn the National Wildlife Refuge land they’re occupying over to “the people” would chiefly benefit those who have cattle ranches in the immediate area and would use it for grazing; or those who could harvest and sell timber from that land. That would seem to be delivering a benefit to the few at the expense of the many.

Many other states do not have the level of public land ownership we have here in Minnesota. Our state could not support the level of outdoor recreation we have were it not for the truly great amount of public land we have. There would be far fewer opportunities to hunt deer, pheasants, or grouse; fewer places to hike, camp and cross-country ski. Add to this the philosophy and statutes in Minnesota that declare our waters to belong to the entire citizenry, and it’s clear that we already have a pretty nice world in which “the people” can pursue our favorite outdoor recreations.

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