If you are not following Western land issues you may miss the “Land Transfer” issue. In short, it is a push to “give/take back” or “transfer” federal lands to the states. The framing matters in terms of what “transfer” means but also crucially in terms of why this is considered a necessary idea in the first place. The basic idea as espoused by conservative land activists and their congressional supporters is that the federal government has too much land and should give it to the states because the states can be better stewards of them. The question of how the states would manage the land and for what purposes is the contention since in the states where this is driven as an issue, there is a history of anti-federal government land management, and there is a push to develop public lands for more private interests. Under the framing of “local control” and states’ rights, “transferring” federal lands to the states operationally means losing our public land heritage—it restricts public land access and a common stewardship that should be managed for the national and public interest.
How does this play out with some historical context? For many Latino communities, and especially Native American communities, “transferring” or “giving back” federal lands, particularly Western federal lands rings differently historically—the Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce and Couer d’Alene nations rightfully make some good points on where the land transfers should go.
Latino—particularly Hispano and Chicano—communities have a part of this story through the history of how land grants and rights were lost after the Mexican-American war. The irony is that many land grant rights were meant to be protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that is the basis for some of the land grant activism of the 1960’s led by Reies Lopez Tijerina—work that continues to this day.
Compare that to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970’s & 1980’s and its current resurgence with “rebels” like Cliven Bundy. One could argue both Tijerina and Bundy should both be seen in a similar vein for taking action against the government. Tijerina raided the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in the 1967 and Bundy faced down the BLM. But Tijerina was pointing out the lack of recognition of rights and a history of injustice while Bundy simply did not want to pay agreed upon rates for his privately-owned cattle grazing on public lands. He couldn’t trace rights to those public lands in the same way a Hispano landowner could, let alone a Native American nation having treaty rights. But the stories around a new Sagebrush Rebellion get more political backing and attention because they claim to assert more rights as they ignore the history of how other communities have been excluded from these narratives—and the land.
One can get a glimpse at these stories in books like Understories, and Environmental & Economic Justice. But focused on the present, if public lands really are transferred to the states, then it is another exclusionary practice, a way to once more reduce public land access to a growing multicultural America.—and allocate its benefits to a privileged few. Public lands are a narrative and platform for rights much in conjunction with other civil rights. Injustices were done in the past and they need to be recognized in the present. We should strive to be more equitable and inclusive in relation to public lands just as we have been striving for it in other public spheres. How we deal with what public lands mean—and for what reasons we keep them public and accessible for the current and future generations matters, because they further away that seems as an issue, the more likely we are to lose what we may forget we have—all of us.