Small World: Home on the range — under Federal care


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Every Saturday afternoon when I was growing up, our father would take us to the double feature at the movie theater. Inevitably, one of the two films would be a cowboy drama — the lone hero standing up against various bad guys, corrupt officials or a tribe of wild Indians.

I suppose that helped indoctrinate a lot of us into the ranks of extreme individualists. Us, alone, against the oppressors.

We see something of this playing out now in western Oregon, pretty much sagebrush and desert country. A bunch of ranchers — real or imagined — armed with weapons and grievances have occupied a federal wildlife preserve. The offended power, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is playing it cool. Extra careful to avoid a deadly confrontation as years go at Waco, Texas, it is letting the Justice Department pursue legal recourse and, otherwise, just standing around. No one is getting hurt, except for the official ears that are burning from the fiery rhetoric and the locals who have to bear the extra expenses of traffic, etc.

The leader of the insurgent “militia” is Ammon Bundy, scion of a ranching family that has for some few years refused to pay federal grazing fees for the land their cattle use down in Nevada. (Fed fees are lower than fees charged by private landowners.) According to the NY Times, Mr. Bundy preaches that “government oppression in land use, ownership and management” is responsible for the area’s poverty. In fact, the Times writes, government paychecks “have helped keep” the area “afloat as private jobs have declined.” Sixty percent of local income comes from the public sector. Mr. Bundy wants to shift the ownership of the land from federal to local, state or private — presumably more malleable — hands.

This conflict prompts several mixed reactions in my mind: First, the Bundy bunch may be feuding with the Feds, but in reality they are waging war on all American citizens. We own the land and have entrusted BLM with its proper, environmentally sound care. If anyone contests that management, there are established routes to relief through the courts, the Congress or the Executive Branch. We are, like they say, a nation of laws, not of self-asserting rebellion.

Which leads to my second reaction: Extreme individualism and its unfettered expression are the current curse on our society. It ranges from aggressive, nasty and uniformed social media messages to the same kind of stupid and aggressive talk of politicians to the insane shootings of innocents. Where are societal discipline and self-control? Whither the willingness to listen and reason with the other fellow? Is it not possible to grouch in private, possibly writing a thoughtful letter to the editor or congressman? In the Oregon and Nevada cases of contempt for government, the government is playing the adult role — cool and patient. In time, the calculation appears to be, the Bundy “militia” will tire of being waited-out and ignored which must seen for the publicity hounds the equivalent of imprisonment. Oversized egos require constant pumping up.

But, on the other hand, all those Saturday afternoon cowboys have left their mark on me. This society, this government, which we live with or under, is awfully hard to budge. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the country needing a continuing revolution. If change is ever to come to the way Washington operates (or doesn’t), does anyone think it can be achieved by orderly, prescribed rules? Maybe Mr. Bundy is following the only feasible path out of an oppressive system. Maybe, rather than wagging a tsch-tsch finger we ought to be giving him a high five or clenched fist.

I would part company with Mr. Bundy, however, on his ultimate objective. He wants cheap — preferably free — grazing rights. I would like to see wise management and federal help to the poverty-ridden areas that surround the preserve and western ranges. It may be a long, long wait for both sides, but we shouldn’t be distracted from real needs by poorly scripted and ideological cowboy dramas.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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