Watersheds Messenger Summer 2001 Vol. VIII, No. 2 PDF ISSUE
the Management of Our Public Lands
Western Watersheds Project executive director Jon
Marvel presented the following speech on June 8 at the Farm Foundation's Bennett Roundtable in Sun Valley, Idaho.
I would like to thank the officers and staff of the Farm Foundation for the invitation to participate on this panel today. I would also like to thank Toni Purves of the Foundation for her prompt responses to my questions about the panel and the Bennett Roundtable.
Our theme today is "Local Impacts of National Policy" and the conflicts arising from the management of publicly-owned resources. In developing some ideas related to this theme, I would like to present them to you in four categories which, I think, provide a reasonable defining framework for understanding national public policy in the administration of public lands and how those policies affect all of us. In choosing these categories I wish to emphasize that it is government policies which have historically defined how natural resources are used and who benefits from them.
As public beliefs and values shift over time, those policies may no longer continue to serve the needs of all Americans. The four categories are Dominion, Dependence, Denial and Deregulation.
Dominion is a concept derived directly from the JudeoChristian tradition and specifically from Genesis 1, Verse 28, where the King James Bible states: "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
That the Bible itself directs humankind to "subdue" the earth and have "dominion" over the fish, the fowl, and "every living thing that moveth upon the earth" has colored every aspect of Western Europeans' relationships with the natural world for the past two millennia. The belief in Dominion over all life on Earth has been the motivation, in my opinion, of all of the direct and indirect consequences of the development of agriculture wherever descendants of European Judeo-Christian cultures have settled.
This cultural and religious reality has defined all of the European settlement of North America as well as most federal government land management decisions until the recent past. Absent from this belief paradigm was another part of the Bible: Genesis 2, Verse 15, which reads: "The Lord God took and placed the human in the garden of Eden, to serve it and protect it."
As the Catholic bishops of the Northwest have discussed in their Pastoral Letter Project for the Columbia River Basin, this part of Biblical understanding - the understanding of the need for stewardship - has not informed very many of the historical natural resource management decisions made by our ancestors who primarily came to this continent from Europe and who defined how natural resources were developed and employed.
The result of this cultural pre-eminence of the Biblical idea of Dominion instead of the Biblical idea of Stewardship has, in my opinion, brought us as co-owners of the natural resources of public lands to the current moment of unresolved and continuing conflict and disagreement over their disposition and use.
After Dominion comes Dependence. Virtually all extractive uses of natural resources, especially in the arid West, require, directly or indirectly, the financial support of the federal government and to a lesser extent local and state government. This state of Dependence for natural resource users, whether they are loggers, miners or ranchers, is manifested in the administration of public lands with little regard for cost as long as the status quo interests continue to be served and sustained. Public lands ranching costs the U.S. government about $400-$500 million a year in direct and indirect subsidies. This is a number developed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. This cost is borne by the taxpayers with little or no benefit but with impact in the way of unwelcome environmental damage, including the destruction of fisheries, recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat, and water quality, as well as the inexorable diminution of biodiversity.
Even on private agricultural lands in the West, government agricultural support has become so disproportionate that 100 percent of the net farm income in Montana last year came from federal government support payments of one kind or another. In a revealing article published last December in the New York Times, reporter Timothy Egan described the farm economy of Choteau County, Montana, whose county seat is Fort Benton. In this one county alone, $54 million of government payments were made to farmers and ranchers last year, and more than 10 farmers were paid in excess of $500,000 each.
Another New York Times article from May of this year found that 10 percent of farmers and ranchers receiving government "emergency aid" last year received more than 60 percent of the $28 billion handed out last year by the Congress. Then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was quoted in the first article saying that what we were creating is a direct transfer of wealth from cities to rural areas with no accountability and little or nothing in return for those paying the bills.
At the local
government level, ranchers and farmers benefit from numerous tax breaks and financial
handouts. This year the Idaho Legislature passed a new law which exempts all personal
property on farms from any property tax whatsoever. This means that massive center pivot
irrigation systems are still depreciated for business tax purposes but cannot be taxed by
county governments to support schools, clinics, roads and law enforcement. Across the
country, agricultural landowners are exempted from full valuation for general ad-valorem
property taxes. In one southwestern Idaho County, Owyhee, which has 10,000 residents, fewer than 100 property owners control
over 750,000 acres of private land on which
they pay on average 11 cents per acre per year in property taxes based on an assessed
value of $15.00 per acre for tax purposes. Their property taxes pay no more than 1.4
percent of the annual cost to operate the four school districts located wholly within that
county. The real source of funding for public school services in Owyhee County comes from the
state sales and income taxes, which are collected primarily in Idaho's urban areas.
Just this week the reality of
agricultural Dependency on federal handouts has again been made clear by news from
Congress about an early rewrite of the 1996 Farm Bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin of
Iowa. The bill would apparently guarantee $50,000 to each farmer in return for some
conservation commitments. This proposal, I am told, has already been endorsed by the
National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, two influential
Dependency on government largesse
is the defining motif of agriculture and other natural resource extraction groups in the
United States. All of this Dependency on government carries with it a curious fact of
natural resource management disagreements: Denial of reality. This is perhaps the defining
characteristic of resource use groups whether on public or private lands. The
nonagricultural public is presented over and over again in all media outlets with the
forthright, independent, self-reliant and self-sufficient farmers and ranchers. Virtually
no mention is ever made of the remarkable level of government dependency of all
agricultural users of public land natural resources. In fact, farmers, ranchers, loggers
and miners routinely disparage any government involvement in their lives.
This level of Denial would be
described by most psychologists as pathological, and I would argue that it is the inherent
Denial extends to a curious form
of self-righteousness, which manifests in claims of absolute rights to access to natural
resources such as forage for livestock, timber, water and minerals on public lands. It
carries further into a denial of any accountability for externalized environmental costs
such as the loss of wildlife habitat, predators, clean water, opportunities for solitude
and renewal which the etymology of the word "recreation" underlines.
How then do we break out of this
unfortunate world of government maintenance of the status quo in public land use at the
expense of larger public benefits which could occur if things were different?
Of course, those of us in
conservation work have some legal tools available to us which can help destabilize the
current entrenched system, and we use them all the time. They include the Clean Water and
Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the NEPA, the NFMA, the FLPMA and various
agency regulations such as Bruce Babbitt's Range Reform of 1995. We cheerfully use these
to help change traditional destructive uses of public lands. At the same time, I would
suggest that ulti
Deregulation, or the opening of
the fiscal basis of public land use allocations, is my final category. Deregulation would
involve opening up closed and remarkably socialistic government programs to financial
solutions. For example, conflicts over de-watering of streams by irrigation diversions can
be solved by permitting the sale of water rights and the authorization of transfer of
existing agricultural water uses to in-stream flow with the original date of priority left
intact. In the case of public lands ranching, the full recovery of government costs
associated with administering the use and the opening of a
As a nation we do not have to act to change anyone's belief in Dominion in order to end Dependency and Denial. We can do it through Deregulation and the introduction of free market economic forces an idea which is at least as strong a part of American traditions as the Book of Genesis.