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The War to Claim the New West

The county power movement, as it’s called, is centered on some 70 western counties that are surrounded by the public domain and are defiantly declaring their independence. It’s a kind of mini-secessionist movement, charged by anger at federal authority and environmentalism. No better example of this insurgency can be found than in Wallowa County in eastern Oregon. Bounded on one side by Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in the United States, and on the other by the serrated, snow-capped peaks of the Wallowa Mountains, Wallowa is one of the most remote and isolated counties in the nation—fifty miles of hard driving from the nearest highway.

Forty years ago, ranching, logging and mining formed the economic backbone of Wallowa County. Over the past two decades, however, Wallowa County has been undergoing a dramatic structural transformation. First, the small sawmills closed, victims of their own rapacious appetite for old-growth Ponderosa pine, which had been nearly eliminated from the region’s mountains by the late 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, the corporate mills, owned by transnational timber giant Boise-Cascade moved out. While the corporate executives blamed the closures on environmental regulations and lawsuits, the prime factor was a desire to find more efficient locations (such as the forests of the Sierra Madre in Mexico) for their new high tech mills.

Meanwhile, here in the heart of cowboy country, there are only 46 ranchers left in a county nearly the size of Delaware. And, according to one economic study, total farm income in Wallowa county represents only about eight percent of total employment. Of this, ranching represents less than two percent. For at least the past twenty years, the biggest single employer in Wallowa County (and most of the rural West, for that matter) is the federal government—in this case the Forest Service. Oh, the irony.

Wallowa County’s demographics are also changing, Young people are fleeing the county for better paying jobs in Spokane, Boise and Portland. This is a phenomenon at work across the entire region. Indeed, the contemporary West is much more urban-centered than the East or the South. More than 80 percent of Westerners live in cities.

As the children of ranchers, loggers and sawmill operators scramble towards the cities, new kinds of urban refugees are moving into the county. For example, the small town of Joseph, named after the famous Nez Perce Chief who was born in a cave near town, now resembles a kind of yuppie colony with art cooperatives, herb farms, an organic farmer’s market, designer coffee shops and microbrew pubs.

In short, Joseph has become a vacation retreat, a wannabe Jackson, Wyoming. And the old timers don’t like it one bit. They fear rising property taxes, pressures from mortgage holders, displacement from traditional lifestyles. All they see are urban-transplants throwing cash around while they lose their jobs in dying industries.

The way the town elders see it, it’s the federal government that’s to blame for their deprivation. In 1994, county residents voted to adopt an ordinance aimed at kicking the federal government off lands they insist belong to the state of Oregon, and in so doing, turned Wallowa County into a Firebase Charlie of the West’s war against the federales.

Arleigh Isley, a local administrative law judge and one of the county fathers, declared at the time: “I have found nothing in the Constitution that provides for the federal government to own large tracts of land, nor have I found any amendment to the Constitution that could all it to do that. As a consequence I have to conclude they are doing it without proper authority.”

Isley added that part of the law that set aside the public domain lands was “written in after Congress adjorned. They knew it was illegal!”

So far, Wallowa County hasn’t taken any direct steps to enforce it ordinance. County commissioner Ben Bosworth, widely regarded as a lone moderate in county politics, explained why: “The day the election ended we could’ve had 200 people with guns on the courthouse lawn, saying let’s kick the bastards off. But the sheriff here is too much of a lapdog. So far we’ve just used the ordinance as a negotiating tool.”

Deal Potter, a former chopper pilot in the Vietnam War who ran unsuccessfully for Wallowa County commissioner, is another keen adherent of county rule. In fact, Potter drafted the Wallowa County ordinance and organized a rally at which effigies of local environmentalists were hung from mock gallows.

“I got a bunch of people together who said, we’ll just hang those enviros in effigy here, and so we just hung ‘em up in Joseph,” Potter said with a snicker. “Well, I found out that all you gotta do is take a bag of straw, put some old clothes on it, and put a name on it and, shit, you’ve got everybody in the United States wanting to talk to you.”

The “War on the West” signs posted in windows and on telephone poles throughout the county were made by Potter, as were the “Bag Babbitt” bumperstickers that adorned nearly every Chevy two-ton truck in town.

Potter thinks that the Endangered Species Act is more than just an environmental measure. “It’s become a tool to change the political system,” Potter said. “It’s a way to expand the authority of the federal government into completely new areas. It’s a tool for social engineering.”

When asked if he didn’t feel some sympathy with commercial salmon fisherman, put out of business by declining runs of Chinook and coho, Potter said, without a trace of irony: “No, that’s just the price of doing business.”

Potter also described sightings of “black helicopters” in Wallowa County. “I got calls from lots of worried folks, complaining about black helicopters hovering over their property,” Potter said. “They knew my background as a pilot. So I looked at them and they were DEA-type choppers. I think they were on loan to Babbitt’s Biological Survey, out there doing GIS mapping.”

“A lot of people from the East view the West simply as their playground,” said Jim Walker, another unsuccessful candidate for Wallowa County commissioner. Walker, a Mormon with biceps the size of sledgehammers, operates a small ranch in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains, where he also runs a mail order backpacking supply company. “They want a government provided playground,” he said. “And it’s not supposed to be that way. Every state is supposed to enter the Union on equal footing, which means that the state is to own and control the disposition of all the lands within its borders—just like out East. The only property the Feds are supposed to own here is the post office.”

Isley, Potter and Walker are up-front county power advocates. They represent a growing and increasingly confrontational face of the Wise Use movement. It is a situation that makes some of the old-time Wise Use leaders squirm.

Ron Arnold, for example, made haste to distance the mainstream property rights movement from the out-of-favor militia and county supremacy fanatics. “I deplore them,” said Arnold. “I think the notion of taking up arms to defend what we’re trying to defend is wrong-headed. It’s stupid. I tell them: Look, if you take up arms against the United States government it’s called insurrection. And you’d better be prepared to deal with the consequences, which will be quite severe.”

Although Arnold gave a lively speech at the Joseph rally where the greens where hung in effigy, these days he doesn’t have any use for the county movement or its constitutionalist adherents. “I don’t know where people like Dick Carver are coming from,” Arnold said. He was referring to the Nye County, Nevada county commissioner who forced a confrontation with the federal government over the control of the public domain and has become something vigilante hero of the county rights crowd, speaking at rallies across the West, including the Jubilee Celebration, a convention of neo-Nazi and Christian racist groups in California.

“Carver obviously hasn’t read very many legal documents from the time of the revolution, if he thinks the government has no authority to own those lands,” Arnold said. “Constitutionalists? I call them tub-thumpers. There are no lawyers associated with the Wise Use movement who do anything but shake their heads at these guys.”

The attorneys general of Nevada, Oregon, Montana and New Mexico, four states where the county power movement is the most strident, have cited a wealth of case law that establishes federal precedent in contests with state and local governments over public lands.

Up until the mid-1990s, the property rights movement had been a major public relations success, an image that was damaged after it became saddled with the unwelcome baggage of the militias. But even when taken apart from the ideological fringes, the property rights movement isn’t all that it appears to be. For most of the past hundred years the federal managers of the public lands have, if anything, maintained a beneficent relationship to the logging, mining and ranching interests they were meant to regulate and superintend.

The federal agencies have bent over backwards to serve their interests: fixing fences, building roads, digging wells, constructing waterholes, killing predators, and building other “improvements” on the public range for the sole benefit of the ranchers who lease it at a fraction of what they would for commercially equivalent rangeland. Ranchers who possess federal grazing allotments are allowed to take those subsidized contracts and, using them as collateral, borrow from financial institutions, notably the federal farm and land banks, whose operations are insured by the federal taxpayers.

Not only do public lands ranchers not pay market costs, the ranchers on BLM lands were allowed to sublease the public range out at a much higher rate, thereby taking for themselves the profit from this publicly-owned land. On top of that, 25 percent of the gross receipts from all commercial uses on the public lands is returned to the counties—hundreds of millions a year.

The political power of the Western rancher is grossly disproportionate. In a time of blind budget cutting, their water and grazing subsidies remain sacrosanct. Moveover, in 1993 when Jim Baca, the reform-minded BLM chief of the early Clinton years, tried to make some modest changes in federal grazing policy, the ranchers rose up and engineered his ouster. Baca was replaced by Mike Dombeck, a man with a much friendlier disposition toward the ranching industry. In fact, Dombeck had authored an internal memo that circulated through the Interior Department suggesting that 100 million acres of BLM lands could either be returned to the states or sold off outright.

As for the so-called constitutional underpinnings of the property rights and county supremacy movements, one need only consider that most of the federal land west of the 100th meridian is arid desert—worthless as property (though not habitat) without water. Yet the water rights that give the land economic value, whether for grazing, farming, mining or development as ski resorts, are controlled not by the federal government, but by the states.

Wayne Hage, for example, howled about how the vast federal monolith was destroying his ranch in order for the environmentalists and their hidden Eastern money manipulators to get at his clear mountain water and sell it to greedy developers in Los Angeles. In fact, Hage offered up his own water to Las Vegas, which at the time was the fastest growing city in the West.

In the most profound sense, the entire rhetorical construct of the property rights movement in West (which is distinct from the more elite property rights movement of the east coast) is a kind of tall tale, a game of make-believe. It is a PR-gambit, designed to transform the real anger and anxiety over the cratering economic conditions of the rural West into a forceful political movement that can be dominated, manipulated and, finally, no doubt, abandoned by the Republican rightwing, whose ties have always been with corporations not people. “The untold story here is that the Wise Use movement is really a front for rightwing politicians and multinational corporations,” said Jim Nelson, the former supervisor of the Toiyabe National Forest, who cracked down on Hage and other renegade ranchers.

Admittedly, Hage, Jim Walker and Cliff Gardner weren’t making millions off of their federal range allotments. However, behind the ranchers lurk gold conglomerates, oil and gas companies, and developers poised to make tens of billions from the deregulation of public lands—entities with much less sympathetic public profiles than the Western rancher.

That many of these ranchers aligned themselves in a political movement with transnational corporate forces, which, in the long run, also threaten their own interests, shows the real and resounding success of this public relations offensive, which expertly used the western rancher to put a more pleasing, almost mythological, face on the real forces seeking to capitalize on the property rights movement.

That is not to say that these ranchers haven’t made an awful mess of the public range. As Edward Abbey wrote:

“The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, poverty weed, cowshit anthills, mud, dust and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how he loves the American West.”

A New West is coming. And in it the rancher appears to be a doomed species. This last spasm of resistance may turn out to little more than a kind of ghost-dancing, a violent nostalgia for a time long since past. The question is: into whose hands will the New West fall? The owners of the resurgent gold mines and the timber conglomerates or the transplanted urbanites escaping metropolitan blight—the new Western pioneers?

This article is adapted from a piece that ran in the Village Voice.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch and author of Born Under a Bad Sky. James Ridgeway is a journalist living in Washington, DC.

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