Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 2     PDF ISSUE

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Defining the Management of Our Public Lands
By Jon Marvel


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 farm groups.

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 psychological conflict between the belief system of public land resource users, which emphasizes independence, a belief in free market capitalism and a general distrust of government, and the reality -- absolute dependence on government by the same groups -- which accounts for the anger directed at government and environmentalists by these groups.

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 mately having government authorization of greater use of free market solutions will more quickly resolve many of our public land conflicts.

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 competitive market for conservation use of grazing allotments with private and government funding will provide returns to ranchers and recovery of damaged ecosystems. Instead of simply continuing to hand out subsidies, whether in the form of direct payments or tariffs and other indirect supports to ranchers and farmers, we need to deregulate in order to phase out the absurdly entrenched and unreal economic existence of much public land extractive use.

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.


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