You and all other Americans own that great national resource known as federal lands. Through the foresight of our country’s forefathers, these lands, mostly in the West and equal in size to about 150 Connecticuts, are held in trust for present and future generations to preserve and enjoy.
A group of land grabbers, led by mining and timber corporations, thinks differently. They see vast areas rich in oil, gas, timber, minerals and grazing wealth. They are no longer satisfied with cheap leaseholds on this public land. It is ownership they are after.
The public lands also are filled with unequalled beauty of the wilderness, recreational regions, watersheds, mountains and fragile ecology. Species of flora and fauna, so well-described in Paul and Anne Erlich’s new book “Extinction” (Random House, New York), may find their last refuge there. But the land grabbers see dollar signs instead.
Working through their state legislative minions, the grabbers have launched what they call “the Sagebrush Rebellion.” Doesn’t that phrase sound old-fashioned, self-reliant and defiant? It really is just camouflage for something else that is old-fashioned called Greed.
The trouble is that the Sagebrush Rebels now have friends in high places who favor transferring many federal lands to the states which then, as Nevada did years ago, can sell the lands to private interests for private exploitation. Ronald Reagan last year said he was a Sagebrush Rebel. So is his secretary of the interior, James Watt, the person who is supposed to be managing these lands in trust for future Americans. Watt, quite expectedly, is the darling of the oil, coal and mining companies.
Out in Nevada, Charles Watson Jr. of Carson City is worried. He’s been studying scientific reports warning of the rapid deterioration of the land in the Southwest. The desert is on the move. Overgrazing, mining of groundwater, depletion of vegetation and the ominous, relentless soil erosion all go hand in had with short-term corporate misuse.
As director of the National Public Lands Tax Force (P.O. Box 1245, Carson City, Nev., 89701), Watson has observed what he calls the “punishing exploitation” of 9,500,000 acres under Arizona state jurisdiction. The states are not much of a match for multinational corporate powers and their allies.
Commercial extremism is running wild in the Western States as timber, energy and mineral prices skyrocket. Contempt is showered on President Gerald R. Ford’s Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. But it is the spreading lawlessness of recent months which invites the clarion call for action by Americans who believe that a public treasure is a public trust.
An example of Sagebrush lawlessness occurred in Mineral County, Nevada, in early February. There, miners, with the aid of the county commission’s bulldozers, pushed 14 miles of roads through a wilderness-study area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the Interior Department under President Carter had designated the area for special protection. The furtive road-building was discovered and halted by astonished BLM officials who knew the land had little mineral value. But by carving up the land, the miners hoped to discourage the BLM from asking Congress to designate the area as Wilderness. Though mining can continue in such designated areas, it must be done in a way that will not destroy the land’s unique characteristics.
In other states, the land grabbers have not attempted to conceal their illegal actions. Last summer, in Grand County, Utah, local officials and miners collaborated, as one Sagebrush politician put it, “to show BLM that our county commissioners are going to take control of the land within our boundaries.” After a short ceremony and a few speeches by officials, a county bulldozer plowed into a proposed wilderness-study area.
Some Washington politicians are encouraging this anarchy. Last year, Congressman James Santini, (D-Nev.) led a move to block a bill that would have given the BLM authority to issue citations against violators. Currently, the BLM must request a federal court order. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a leading supporter of giving up federal lands, sent a sympathetic telegram to the violators in Grand County.
Secretary Watt is determined to weaken regulations governing commercial use of the public lands. Reagan’s nominee to head the BLM, William Burford, is a Sagebrush devotee from Colorado.
The Sierra Club is organizing a national drive to oust Watt from his systematic abuse of the public land trust. Before this momentous struggle is resolved, many more Americans will appreciate the splendid heritage which President Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and other leaders provided millions of human beings. Because there is nothing like a direct, special-interest land grab to alert the country to defend what belongs to everyone.