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The Lords Of Yesterday Are Back And They Want America's Public Land

Opinion: Barry Reiswig—a backcountry horseman, hunter, angler and civil servant —pushes back against "the radical agenda" of Ryan Zinke

Views from Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument -- Pilot Rock, Courtesy of BLM photographer Bob Wick
Views from Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument -- Pilot Rock, Courtesy of BLM photographer Bob Wick
I have been fortunate in my life to have lived and worked in virtually every Western state. I have followed the tracks of elk in Colorado’s magnificent Flattops, and gazed out over the sagebrush vistas peppered with pronghorn at South Pass where the Oregon Trail skirts the south end of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.


I have dodged hail storms, lightning and grizzlies on the Beartooth Plateau of Montana. I have viewed the petroglyphs, thousands of years old, on the sandstone walls in the canyonlands of Utah and in the vicinity of Bears Ears.

For a memorable span of my adult life, I worked for the federal government and, with pride, devoted myself to civil service. Embracing the oath of stewardship, I oversaw the operation of a special piece of public ground—the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole.

Remaining a proud resident of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem today, I have spent a lifetime traveling thousands of miles by horseback, leading pack trains over the mountains and deserts of our public lands. These lands fire my soul, they provide me a true sense of place, they define who I am as a person. But I'm not alone. I know you share it with me.

When I am out on the public lands I become part of the landscape, part of the pageant of America’s human history—Native American, mountain man, cowboy, settler, soldier, outlaw, preacher, riverboat captain, recreationist, hunter, angler, and, in general, refugee from the crowded world everywhere else.

Barry Reiswig, photo courtesy of the author
Barry Reiswig, photo courtesy of the author
I mention my background only as a preface to this: I know what we are about to lose.

Yes, don't ever doubt it, they’re coming for our public lands, yours and mine. In fact, they’re already here. It is happening and if the real sell-off or divestiture begins, it will be swift and irreversible. 


The billionaires and big corporations, fronted by organizations with slick-sounding names, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the American Lands Council (ALC), are working behind the scenes to take our land away from us. They are laying the groundwork. 

These modern-day robber barons, descendants of the Lords of Yesterday against whom President Theodore Roosevelt fought, know our public lands are worth a fortune—really holding an intangible pricelessness—and they have their sights set on liquidation.  [Editor's note: "Lords of Yesterday" is a reference, first created by the noted Western public policy scholar and law professor Charles Wilkinson, to those who treated the West as a natural resource colony good only for plundering].

Oh, you haven’t read much in the daily western media, and you probably won’t given the lack of depth in reporting, because those who view our public lands as a great prize are doing their work behind closed doors by directly influencing our state and federal legislators.

How does this work? 

ALEC, as just one entity, puts on “seminars” for our elected representatives and gives them “scholarships” to attend these get-togethers free of charge at posh hotels where they can rub elbows with the representatives of the financial elite and lobbyists for big corporations.

Our elected officials are being taught how to take our land away from us.

Land we own together, public land, as sacred as the sight of the flag. At the same time, part of the "teaching" is portraying  those tens of thousands of people on the homefront, who serve our country in the uniform of public land management agencies, as adversaries. 

Don’t expect an invitation to attend their meetings anytime soon; you’re not invited.  Armed with a bevy of lawyers and public relations experts, ALEC carefully plots strategy on getting control of the public lands. They know it won’t be easy but they think the time is right because they believe we are asleep.

We need to wake up.

Our new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, a self-pronounced devotee of Theodore Roosevelt (God only knows why, for he is nothing like TR) has been busy attempting to undermine our public lands for the benefit of the same folks who want to steal them.  He has been less than forthcoming. And he has allies in libertarian think-tanks and Congressional staffs who are adept at dispensing the real definition of "alternative facts".  [View U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich's pointed questioning of Zinke's deputy on inaccuracies in his report to the White House below].
Zinke’s proposals, such as arbitrarily reducing the size of some of our National Monuments, supporting the hatchery rearing of sage grouse chicks in Wyoming and Montana instead of protecting key habitats (there could be oil, gas and coal under there boys), and his latest gem, moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) to Denver—which has long been the western capital for the energy industry and those seeking water grabs— are all designed to please the big boys.

The BuRec headquarters was already located in Denver for many years, and was finally moved to Washington because Congress wanted to keep a closer eye on dam builders hell bent on taming all of our wild rivers.
"When I am out on the public lands I become part of the landscape, part of the pageant of America’s human history—Native American, mountain man, cowboy, settler, soldier, outlaw, preacher, riverboat captain, recreationist, hunter, angler, and, in general, refugee from the crowded world everywhere else."  —Barry Reiswig
In a speech recently to his buddies in the energy industry, Zinke stated that about a third of Interior employees are not loyal to President Donald Trump.  Really?  Personally, I think that figure is a bit low. 

Zinke won't meet with conservationists but he told the National Petroleum Council with indignation that Interior employees are reluctant to relax regulations to permit increased mining for coal and drilling for natural gas and oil on public land.

Most Interior employees I am familiar with are loyal, not to Trump, but to the resources under their care—national parks, historic sites, national conservation lands, wildlife refuges, fisheries and the archeological sites they are responsible for.  They want to keep healthy wildlife populations on the landscape. They are loyal to maintaining clean air and water. They have devoted their lives to it.

Most of all, these public servants are loyal to us, the American people, and we ought to be standing with them. They swear a non-partisan allegiance, as I did, that is inter-generational, not to the whims of a President whose fortune was made selling real estate in Manhattan or to a short-term-minded Interior Secretary who is rapidly securing a place in history as the worst ever—a feat that is actually difficult to achieve.

How could anybody with any ethical integrity or knowledge of our connection to public lands be loyal to Trump? 
Two westerners on horseback. Who better reflects the spirit of conservationist Theodore Roosevelt? Barry Reiswig, left, is a retired civil servant, lifelong backcountry horseman, hunter and angler;  at right,  Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, riding in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington, D.C.  Photo of Reiswig courtesy Wyoming Wilderness Association. Photo of Zinke courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior  (click to enlarge)
Two westerners on horseback. Who better reflects the spirit of conservationist Theodore Roosevelt? Barry Reiswig, left, is a retired civil servant, lifelong backcountry horseman, hunter and angler; at right, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, riding in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington, D.C. Photo of Reiswig courtesy Wyoming Wilderness Association. Photo of Zinke courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior (click to enlarge)

It is our dear Interior Secretary who has a loyalty problem, demonstrated by the fact he has not taken one single, solitary action for conserving our public lands since he set foot in the Interior building after riding up on a horse for a staged PR event. Nice touch. He might want to tighten up that cinch a bit though, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

This former self-touting Navy Seal—most former Navy Seals actually don’t have to beat their chests— is going to learn that we, the owners of public lands, can be stubborn characters, unwilling to give up our birthright to some of the most magnificent landscapes in the world.

Zinke and his allies on Capitol Hill and those in the libertarian think-tanks are bombarding us with unfounded claims that the states will do a better job of managing the public lands (it’s not true, states can’t afford it), and that the “local folks” know more about the public lands than those pesky federal bureaucrats way back there in Washington. 

Those plotting to steal our western heritage solemnly promise there will be no net loss of public lands if they fall to state management, and access will be guaranteed us in perpetuity. Don’t worry, they say, the “local boys” will take care of it. Take care of it for whom? 

Schemes like having the states manage our federal public lands for us are cropping up as well. This would need to be accomplished with federal funds of course, no need to spend those precious state dollars. There are those who truly believe that in a capitalistic society, public lands should not exist, all land should be private.

The fact is that, increasingly, local people in Greater Yellowstone appreciate the value of public lands and conservation because, together, they are central to our quality of life.

I was on talk radio recently in Cody, Wyoming, where lands transfer was the topic. A listener called in and flatly stated all the public lands in Wyoming, more than 25 million acres, should be put up for disposal, 320 acres at a pop under the Desert Land Act. Then, if people wanted to visit these former public lands, they could pay the owner for the privilege; interesting concept, isn’t it?
"I was on talk radio recently in Cody, Wyoming, where lands transfer was the topic. A listener called in and flatly stated all the public lands in Wyoming, more than 25 million acres, should be put up for disposal, 320 acres at a pop under the Desert Land Act. Then, if people wanted to visit these former public lands, they could pay the owner for the privilege; interesting concept, isn’t it?"
Imagine an eighty-mile pack trip through the backcountry. It would certainly become a tremendous effort in logistics, begging the new private owners holding the deed to let you trek across their land.

The AM radio caller mentioned that’s how it is done in Texas. Apparently he thinks the Texas model, where virtually all the land is private, is a good thing, and yes, you pay to do about anything in Texas.

The caller did touch on the central goal of the modern-day land transfer advocates: cash. It’s all about the money; it’s always been all about “the money”. From the early day robber barons to the modern mega-corporations, it’s about maximizing the bottom line, their bottom line, at our expense.

Most of us will never be able to afford a big ranch in the mountains or a trophy home in Jackson Hole or Big Sky. But we, in our own way, are all wealthy because we are part-owners in our public lands. We have opportunities to hunt, fish, camp, rock hound, climb, raft, ride horses, putter around in ORV’s on a scale people elsewhere in the world can’t even imagine.

One thing to note, and I mention this to counter the distortion of the libertarian think-tanks in Bozeman: we already pay; all of us, as citizens, have a portion of our tax dollars going to national parks and forests and wildlife refuges and BLM lands and to resource managers and rangers and scientists working on our behalf for these agencies.

We pay for private ranchers to run their livestock on public lands, too, because we subsidize their grazing fees and their killing of predators and so-called public land improvements and road building and, if the weather gets bad and it kills cattle or sheep, we pay with disaster relief payments.

If the proponents of liquidation succeed in snookering us out of public lands we already own and pay for, will those privateers be willing to give up all those public subsidies?  And are we willing to do without the access to lands we own, lands handed to us as part of our civic inheritance, lands that we’ve counted on passing down to our kids and grandkids?
Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, photograph courtesy of US Bureau of Land Management
Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, photograph courtesy of US Bureau of Land Management

One huge irony: Mr. Zinke and the radical lawmakers pushing this land grab live in some of the states receiving the greatest amount of public subsidies in the country. They know the data doesn’t support their arguments so they alter facts deliberately to deceive.

Do not be deceived. The public lands belong to us—not to a federal government that is portrayed as an "other". Those of us who have served in uniform are the stewards.

We the people are the owners, not the billionaires or the states or the big corporate executives, or even the gun-toting thugs who profess to protect the Constitution but are really just another type of land thief.

Don’t be lulled into believing the fate of pubic lands is permanent or secured.  Mr. Zinke and the people coming after our lands are, if nothing else, patient. They are hoping that the high intrigue currently playing out on the global stage, the fear of a nuclear exchange with North Korea or the shenanigans in Russia, will keep us distracted. Don’t be.

Call up your members of Congress, governor, state legislators and local county commissioners. Insist that they get back to you personally.  Tell elected officials, no matter where you are reading this now, that you say “no” to the radicals.

This is one of the defining fights of our lifetime. Don’t sit on the sidelines.

It’s time our elected officials start sticking up for the little guys, Americans of average means, instead of corporate interests beholden to shareholders, not citizens.

What we are seeing is nothing new, it’s happened before in America, and it was Teddy Roosevelt who stood down the robber barons seeking to take control of the land, them promising an illusionary pot of gold at the end of the lands transfer rainbow.

This is our call to citizenship and trust me, you matter. If you don’t stand up now, your kids and grandkids will only have you to blame later.

Once this bunch sells our land and spends the money and hands over the deed to the schemers, we will be left with nothing, bereft of the sacred sense of who we are.
Barry Reiswig
About Barry Reiswig

Barry Reiswig retired as a senior wildlife manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and today lives in Cody, Wyoming. He is an avid backcountry horseman, hunter and angler.
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