Public lands

They are the property of all Americans, not just those nearby who want to use them

No sane person would suggest that an American wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan is a second-class citizen or somehow undeserving for having never been west of the Mississippi. Yet there are those who argue that a veteran’s son can be deprived of his heritage as an American, simply for not being around to defend it.

Stripped of its ersatz constitutional rhetoric, that is the argument advanced by Utah’s San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. They think that because it happens to be near them and convenient, they have a right to use land owned by all Americans for their own purposes – even if it means trashing things held dear by at least some of their fellow citizens.

Lyman is the organizer behind Saturday’s rally protesting the Bureau of Land Management’s closure of Recapture Canyon east of Blanding to motorized traffic. After speeches and getting themselves worked up, a bunch of opponents of the closure then road ATVs through the canyon in deliberate defiance of the ban.

The protestors no doubt saw themselves as proud Americans defending their liberty against an overreaching government, but their central thesis is bogus. A man helping himself to merchandise in a store may tell himself that he is striving to support his family, but the store owner – and society – will recognize that as stealing.

That the protesters are members of the public that owns that land changes nothing. They have no greater right than the millions of other Americans who also own it.

Commissioner Lyman and company – about 300 strong – were joined in their protest rally by Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher at the center of a recent standoff with officials over his having refused to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. Ryan Bundy was egging the crowd on, saying protesters needed to “take action” to show that Recapture Canyon belongs to the people of Utah’s San Juan County and not to the BLM.

It is an arrogant and presumptuous line of thought. Moreover, it is deliberately misleading. The BLM does not own that land. It administers it and is responsible for it, and legal title is probably in the name of the United States government, but the land is ultimately owned by the American people.

Almost all federal lands in the West were acquired – by the United States of America, as a nation – either through purchase or conquest. In most cases, that means the Louisiana Purchase or the Mexican War. As such, federal ownership – one more time: Ownership by the American people as a whole – predates not only the locals claiming special privileges, but the states themselves. Most federal lands in the West were United States property before there was a Utah or a Nevada, let alone a San Juan County.

Is there a case to be made that the BLM should not close Recapture Canyon to ATVs? Of course, public policy is always up for debate. Then again, there is also a good argument that the ancestral Puebloan remains and artifacts there are worthy of preservation and respect. The BLM did not close that canyon after throwing darts at a map.

It is also worth remembering that the BLM’s Monticello district has some 2,800 miles of trails open to ATVs, with just more than 14 miles closed in Recapture Canyon. That suggests the protest is less a response to federal overreach than a political stunt to advance a skewed and selfish view of federal lands.

All Americans own their public lands, not just those who live nearby. They have a say, too.