Three days before George W. Bush took office in January 2001, President Bill Clinton, with the stroke of a pen, created eight new national monuments that amounted to more than a million acres of land. One of these was the half-million acre Missouri Breaks National Monument in northeastern Montana. Now it appears that groundwork is being laid for more of the same here in Big Sky Country, perhaps during the waning days of President Obama’s second term.
National monuments were originally intended to be, well, monuments -- small places of historical or geological significance such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Jewel Cave in South Dakota, or the Statue of Liberty. But that didn’t stop President Clinton and his advisors in the environmentalist community from thinking big, and they did.
The vast national monuments are generally comprised of acreage that was already public land, and usually land that is under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Why does reclassification matter? Because BLM land is public land, but legally designated as “multiple use.” This allows for commercial leases to be issued: for grazing by ranchers, mineral extraction by mining companies, drilling by oil companies, and recreation by hunters, anglers, hikers, horseback riders, and others. Once land is declared a national monument, however, all bets are off on the degree of restriction on commercial activities that can go into effect.
This is likely the backdrop to a subtle land grab that we saw begin in northeastern Montana, one that went largely unnoticed during the hubbub of the recent presidential election. The size of the grab, however, is not subtle – a 150,000-acre ranch is the latest piece to be moved on this particular chessboard and the real prize is the size of the state of Connecticut. The way it is all happening, however, is very subtle. Oozy, even.
The players in the story: First, agencies of the federal government that control the vast Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (“the CMR”) plus additional public lands surrounding it -- hundreds of thousands of acres around the massive Ft. Peck Reservoir, a large inland lake created by the damming of the Missouri River in eastern Montana. Second, the adjacent historic “South Ranch” of the famed Etchart ranching family, who built one of the state’s largest family livestock operations in a physically remote and harsh corner of the state. Third, the American Prairie Reserve, a private environmentalist group whose vision is to “assemble a multi-million acre wildlife park” in northeastern Montana. The ranch in question -- made up both of deeded private land and public land leases attached to the deeded land -- was, last fall, sold voluntarily by the ranching family to the American Prairie Reserve.
“Voluntary,” “sold,” and “private” aren’t words usually found in the same paragraph as “land grab.” But that’s where the “subtle” part comes in. In reading a statement released by family representative Steve Page, one learns that they had been made an offer they couldn’t refuse, so to speak. While the statement has been excerpted in various news stories, it has only been published in its entirety on the website of the regionally influential and agriculturally based Northern News Network. To read Page’s stark and unembellished account of the ranch’s history over the last several decades is to experience how ranching families are being gradually worn down by the federal government, until giving up and selling the ranch to environmentalists seems like the only good option.
Page notes that his family and their predecessors have “dealt with… land-use issues over a long period of time." He goes on to state that they “have concluded that traditional ranching operations on public land [around the CMR Wildlife Refuge] are in jeopardy of becoming history in the not so distant future.”
According to environmentalists, this sale was part of a “market approach” that is ostensibly a win-win for everyone. For many of us with roots in the ranching culture, however, it provoked a sinking feeling, and was yet another reminder that a lot of people outside of the West -- people with deep pockets (in this case, billionaire heirs to the Mars candy fortune) -- are deadly serious about converting large swaths of traditional ranching country into a giant federal wildlife preserve.
If a casual visitor goes to the part of Montana in question, he might be tempted to wonder, “What’s the fuss?” Compared to the vast majority of the American subcontinent, it already is a vast wilderness area. Deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, waterfowl, upland game birds, and wildlife of every description are more plentiful than at any time since Lewis and Clark first explored the region, and they share the landscape peacefully with ranchers and their herds of cattle and sheep. It really is a paradise -- or at least we think so out here. But not paradise enough, it seems, to suit the environmentalist groups that covet it. As is so often the case, the reason comes down to a single species, one that ironically isn’t even endangered: the American bison, hundreds of thousands of which can be found across the American West on ranches and in wilder settings like national and state parks. Bison have already returned to the Great Plains to an extent that would astound a time-traveler from even 50 years ago, and they have emerged in an organic fashion that melds with the existing economy and culture of ranching in the West.
What is missing, say bison purists, is a large range where truly wild bison can truly range across a vast, human-free habitat. To create what the purists want -- huge, free-ranging herds of wild bison wandering the Great Plains -- millions of acres would need to be returned to the state they were in 150 years ago. Unfortunately, pretty much all of the land on the Great Plains has been part of someone’s ranch for more than a century, whether by direct ownership or time-honored leases so settled and prescriptive that they would set an old-school Burkean heart aflutter. (Why they need to start with a part of Montana the size of Connecticut, and can’t just use Connecticut itself, we are never told.)
Carving out national parks, national monuments, and national wilderness areas has always been surrounded by controversy. Every time it’s done, existing ranching, logging, and mining operations have been shut down, and families have been displaced from their traditional homes. Even in as beloved a place as Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, one doesn’t have to dig far beneath the surface to unearth bitter memories of the secrecy, shell games, half-truths, and outright manipulation by the informal “private-public” partnership between John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the federal government that led up to its creation in 1950. Ranchers around Jackson who sold their land at the time thought they were selling to other ranching operations, and most had no idea that they were participants in eliminating the area’s ranching culture forever.
The same can’t be said this time, which is part of why the Page statement is important. It sets forth, for the benefit of friends, neighbors, and other Montanans, the compelling case that this time the final outcome has already been determined by others, and the family is bowing to that reality. The sale has been unpopular with many Montanans, but at the same time, most who read the story understand that this sale was far from “voluntary,” in the truest sense of the word. It was the family’s one and perhaps only shot at recouping the real value of their land, giving future generations a chance to start again elsewhere.
Is anywhere completely safe, though? At one time, those of us who grew up ranching on the rough ridges and vast openness of the high plains thought we would be very safe. The ranchers being bought, bribed, and muscled out of their operations have long tended to be those whose forebears had settled in physically harsh but breathtakingly beautiful mountain valleys like Jackson Hole. While we thought our family lands on the high plains were equally beautiful in their own way, we knew they weren’t sexy enough for environmentalists or developers ever to covet them. We hadn’t anticipated, however, the intensely priapic effect that visions of wild bison can apparently induce.
This vision is that of the “buffalo commons,” an idea first articulated by a pair of academics -- Frank and Deborah Popper -- and tirelessly marketed by them and their acolytes ever since. In their imagining of the future of the West, the natural decrease in rural populations on the Great Plains should be sped along by having the government buy out farmers and ranchers, turning the land into a grand buffalo theme park stretching from Canada to Mexico, largely empty of people and full of bison. People will of course visit this theme park, and the future eco-tourists will be far more spiritually attuned to nature than, say, mere ranching families that have lived and worked on the land for generations.
It is a long way from the recent sale of a ranch in northeastern Montana to the creation of a vast “buffalo commons,” with tens of millions of acres emptied of permanent residents. It is, however, a clear step, and neither the fact that it is “voluntary” nor the fact that it is touted as a “market-based” solution can change the fact that we are watching a “public-private partnership” between deep-pocketed conservation groups and the federal government.
Roger Scruton, in his recent and excellent book How to Think Seriously About the Planet, asserts that “wise government… should not have a goal beyond that of reconciling, as best it can, the goals of its citizens.” What ranchers throughout the West have been discovering, however, is that the government is not trying to reconcile anything, but is rather picking winners and losers. When environmentalists want what ranchers have, ranchers are consistently finding that it is they who are the designated losers.
Image courtesy Ceasol. Photo above: Wikimedia Commons.
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