'Storm Over Rangelands' Conference in Boise Spotlights Federal Land Use—and Brings Out Demonstrators 

click to enlarge - Harney County, Ore., rancher and Committee of Safety Chairman Tim Smith wants to use local natural resources to boost his local economy. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Harney County, Ore., rancher and Committee of Safety Chairman Tim Smith wants to use local natural resources to boost his local economy.


Outside the Boise Centre on the Grove Jan. 30, demonstrators carried signs that read "Birders Against Bullies" and "Law Abiding Citizens for America's Private Lands." They were protesting the Storm Over Rangelands conference, a "Western rangelands property rights workshop" organized by the National Federal Lands Conference, a Utah-based nonprofit.

Inside, speakers from Oregon, Nevada and Utah argued for giving federal lands to states, saying ranchers, miners and "productive" natural resource users could boost local economies and curb "wasteful and unconstitutional land management practices coming out of Washington, D.C." Conference organizer, rancher and activist (and, according to utahsfreedom.org, "Caring American") Jon Pratt believes "we're in a fire in this country."

"I see either three options at this point: We as a people duck our heads, or we try to make it a constructive, positive thing, or it blows up and it's horrible for everybody," Pratt said.

The focus of the conference was ways ranchers, cowboys, miners and other public land users can urge the federal government to release those lands to the states. Hanging over the proceedings was the ongoing armed occupation—led by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy—of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Harney County, Ore. The standoff between law enforcement and Bundy and his followers, which began as a protest against federal land use policies, did not unify conference attendees: Some voiced support of Bundy's tactics, while others, like Harney County resident and Harney County Committee of Safety Chairman Tim Smith characterized the occupation as getting in the way of the interests of local ranchers. 

click to enlarge - Left to right: Tim Smith, Cliff Gardner, Angus McIntosh, Bundy attorney Todd MacFarlane, Jon Pratt. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Left to right: Tim Smith, Cliff Gardner, Angus McIntosh, Bundy attorney Todd MacFarlane, Jon Pratt.
"There's been so many distractions," Smith said. "The events at the refuge have been a distraction."

Smith spoke to the crowd of around 50-60 people, which included Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, about Harney County resource economics. Smith said land use policy turned Harney from one of the most wealthy (per-capita) counties in Oregon to one of its poorest. If the land were managed by the state for local benefit, he said, "we'd be putting money in people's pockets instead of Washington, D.C."

Smith's assertion isn't a new one, and there have been several attempts  in western states—including Idaho—to turn federal land into state-run land at a legislative level. One effort is currently under way in Nevada, where Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, who was at the conference, said when federal land is given to the states, "you know what your rights are."

Several conference speakers argued about the illegality of federal land management, with Nevada rancher Cliff Gardner telling attendees that land use policy enforcement in the west by federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management is unconstitutional.

"I put my cattle out and, first thing I knew, I was in district court," Gardner said. "When we're under federal jurisdiction, we're not afforded our Constitutional rights."

click to enlarge - Demonstrators protesting the conference. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Demonstrators protesting the conference.
Conference presenters included Pratt, Bundy attorney Todd MacFarlane, and  Dr. Angus McIntosh, the director of natural resource and policy research law at the Land and Water Use USA Foundation. McIntosh expanded on Gardner's idea, telling the audience that for ranchers, the deck of land use policy has been stacked against them.

"If you go into a court of law talking about grazing rights on public lands, you've already lost," he said.

McIntosh then outlined the case against federal land use policy, saying according to U.S. law, once someone has "improved" public land by building on- or irrigating it, it no longer belongs to the federal government. He said it's not a crime for people to cut timber or stone on federal land as long as those activities are in the interest of productive land use.

"There are people out there who really believe the government should own everything," McIntosh said.
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