Connections between recently proposed legislation and antigovernment extremists threaten public lands in the West

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Cliven and Ammon Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education (AAFCE) at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona in 2014.
Wikimedia Commons/ Gage Skidmore

Residents, transplants and visitors alike recognize Colorado as a pioneer in public land leadership. From forests like the White River National Forest to parks like Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado leads by example, paving the way for other Western states to embrace public lands within their state lines.

However, there are a growing number of state senators dissatisfied with the U.S. government’s management of public lands, and they are gunning to privatize these federal lands as a form of “state reclamation.”

In July, the Center for Western Priorities (CWP) updated a report that draws parallels between politicians who support expansive state and local control over federal lands and extremist antigovernment groups with takeover agendas. The updated report, titled Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America’s Public Lands, names Colorado Republican state Senators Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) and Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) in regards to bills they have sponsored in the last year that support state control of Colorado’s federally maintained lands.

Sen. Sonnenberg was the lead sponsor for a bill that would have mandated the study of a possible state takeover of national public lands in Colorado. Senate Bill 232 died in a 5-4 vote after opponents noted the makeup of the study panel excluded many types of Coloradans, such as sportsmen and women, business owners, outdoor recreationists and federal land managers.

“I indeed support moving control of federal lands to each state,” Sen. Sonnenberg says. “States and local governments have a much better understanding of those lands and should be providing the management based on that local understanding.”

The senator argues that federal control has led to reduced public access to these lands as well as poor management, which has led to an uptick in disease and wildfires. Under proper forest management, Sen. Sonnenberg says thinning forests helps to reduce overgrowth, and thinning undergrowth helps control grazing. But, he argues, that is not what the federal government is doing.

“Under federal management, selective timber harvesting was reduced if not eliminated, causing too thick of forests and now nature thins them through wildfires,” he says. “Also, under federal management, grazing has been reduced which leads to overgrowth of the grasses below the trees, creating a fire haven when the grass turns dry.”

Sen. Lambert spearheaded a similar bill this year, which advocates for the state and its communities to exercise police power on federal lands during times of emergency. Sen. Lambert has been vehemently critical of the federal government’s response time for wildfire containment. He often uses the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs as an example.

Sen. Lambert did not return multiple emails and phone calls from Boulder Weekly prior to press time.

Although the push to privatize Colorado’s public lands is not a popular position among the state’s residents, Sens. Sonnenberg and Lambert are not alone in their mission. The CWP reports that Sens. Sonnenberg and Lambert were just two of 20 other state legislators serving as primary sponsors for 54 land-seizure bills introduced in Western state legislatures over the last 18 months.

Another Colorado official not named by the recent CWP report is Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Republican who representing Northwest Colorado. He has been another prime co-sponsor of anti-federal land bills in the state over the last five years.

“It’s interesting because Lambert and Sonnenberg represent Front Range or Eastern Plains districts that have very little public land, but Randy Baumgardner represents the largest public lands district in the Colorado Senate,” Scott Braden, wilderness advocate and media specialist with Conservation Colorado says. “He’s got somewhere in the tune of 6 million acres of national public land in his district.”

Attempted public land grabs by states are a growing issue in the West. They are largely supported by antigovernment organizations that have been on the upswing since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. In addition, the U.S. government’s introduction of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Wilderness Act over the years has left many conservatives and western landowners believing the federal government is over-regulating extractive land uses like oil, gas, mining and timber as well as traditional grazing practices.

As a result, frustration and resentment have been building among ranchers dependent on grazing their cattle on federal lands and politicians who support and are supported by the oil, gas and timber industries. In some cases, this frustration has morphed into organized antigovernment activism.

Joel Dyer

Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 19 active antigovernment “patriot” groups in the state of Colorado, including the Oath Keepers. Those numbers compare to nine such organizations in Utah that are supporting that state’s current efforts to privatize federal lands.

There are 18 known groups in Oregon, where antigovernment activists Ammon Bundy led a group of armed militants in the highly publicized takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this past winter. That takeover was in response to the prison sentences of two Oregon cattle ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson on federal lands after they burned areas to improve the grass where they had traditionally grazed their animals.

Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, the infamous Nevada rancher who instigated a 2014 standoff with federal authorities at his ranch over a 20-year-long grazing dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In total thus far, there have already been five armed standoffs or shows of civil disobedience in the West, resulting from disputes over federal land ownership and management.

In addition to the Cliven Bundy ranch standoff and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover in Oregon, there was an illegal off-road vehicle ride and protest in San Juan County, Utah in 2014. In 2015, antigovernment adherents held an armed gathering as a show of force in Josephine County, Oregon. And in April 2015, many members of the same 20 or so patriot and sovereign-citizens groups that had been involved in the Bundy Ranch standoff, as well as the Oregon and Utah actions, took over and occupied a large swath of national forest land in Montana.

And these five incidents don’t count the arrest of an Arizona antigovernment activist apprehended in June 2016 for allegedly planning to bomb the offices of the BLM in that state. There are currently 31 known antigovernment groups operating in Arizona.

Many observers believe that the actions of state legislators like Colorado’s Sonnenberg, Lambert and Baumgardner are feeding the fires of this rural Western discontent.

“The biggest risk currently posed by extremist legislators is against law enforcement,” says Aaron Weiss, media director for the CWP in Denver. “We’ve seen bills in Congress that would disarm the Interior Department entirely, putting our park rangers and scientists at risk. When you combine that legislative agenda with the actions of people like Ammon and Ryan Bundy, those militants are emboldened by what they see at the legislative level.”

Additionally, the GOP has adopted a plank in their platform at this year’s Republican National Convention calling for the transfer of public lands to states that includes this language:

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”

National proponents of this land grab movement include politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, demonstrating that this antigovernment influence is fueling the political system at the national level.

Historically, the idea that local governments or white settlers are the rightful owners of federal lands comes directly from conspiracy-driven groups like the Posse Comitatus who believe the “New World Order” is out to take ownership of all lands and ultimately imprison land and gun owners as slave laborers. Many of these white ranchers and rural laborers believe that the government should return all federal land to its original owners — them. But critics point out this belief is misguided.

“If the land is to go back to the people who originally owned it, it would be Indian people who would have that claim. When people like the Bundy family make the claim that the land should go back to the people as it was originally in their possession, that’s historically imagined,” says Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The U.S. government owns 47 percent of all land in the West, and visitors share in the cost of maintaining those public lands. Limerick says that from a historical perspective, privatizing public land has been shown to reduce or eliminate public access, and that it’s very common for people to make up their own details about history, even on national political platforms.

“If you’re going to deal with reality, you just have better footing if you start with a historically accurate understanding,” Limerick says. “The people who claim that the land was once in the possession of American citizens and should go back to that ownership, that’s a historically inaccurate premise.”

As Republican senators tout public land grabs as a state’s rights issue, Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, raises the point that states often lack the financial ability to manage such large tracts of land, which is why federal land management exists.

“Oftentimes if lands are turned over to the states, those lands are likely to be the victim of local budget crisis,” Potok says. He adds that, “Privatizing the land in any significant way is very likely to wind up with degradation of the land at the expense of the American people.”

His main argument, in the case for maintaining federal land ownership, is that local governments do not have the funds to be good environmental stewards of these lands. Experts in Colorado agree that while there are some legitimate complaints with the government’s overall stewardship of public lands, any state land seizure would ultimately hurt the communities that have built their economies around recreation and visitation. Some of these communities generate many millions of dollars as a result of pristine federal lands.

“Because of the high cost of managing these public lands, especially if you think about the wildfire cost, [the price] would be so high that the state of Colorado would have to tilt the management towards increasingly profitable activities,” says Conservation Colorado’s Braden.

This typical BLM oil and gas lease auction is just one part of the agency’s management of public lands.Joel Dyer
This typical BLM oil and gas lease auction is just one part of the agency’s management of public lands.

In other words, for Colorado to own these federal lands, oil and gas extraction, timber cutting, mining and other industrial uses would increase in order to balance the books. Weiss from CWP agrees that Colorado simply could not afford to manage public lands. He says trying to foot the bill for disasters such as wildfires alone would pose a huge challenge to the state budget.

“One severe wildlife season can cost U.S. Forest Service and BLM a hundred million dollars in any given state. That’s roughly what all of Colorado spends on law enforcement,” Weiss says.

It’s important to note that the CWP report directly linking politicians to extremist groups is based on the political support for issues that reflectthe concerns of these Western antigovernment activists, not on any formal membership or direct participation in any of these groups. However, Weiss argues that these politicians aren’t just supporting similar goals, they’re trying to pass legislation that gets directly at the demands and ideologies of groups like the Bundy Ranch supporters and the Oath Keepers in Colorado.

“Thankfully, the small number of legislators in Colorado with extremist ties have not had much success pushing their agenda through the state capitol,” says Weiss. “There’s a stark contrast between Colorado — where three bills that attacked federal land ownership failed in 2015 and 2016 — and Utah, where the legislature is getting ready to waste $14 million on a doomed lawsuit that’s trying to force the American people to give up American lands in the state.”

In stark contrast to Utah, last May, Colorado became the first state in the nation to create a holiday in celebration of the benefits of public lands. Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill put forward by Rep. KC Becker of Boulder, designating the third Saturday in May as “Public Lands Day” statewide.

“Every year it will provide opportunities for entities that want to say, ‘Get out on your public lands, here’s the benefit that our public lands drive,’” says Rep. Becker. “My sense is that there’s nothing wrong with our current laws, we don’t need to transfer land to the state or certainly not to private entities for there to be greater community involvement in public land decision making.”

So while most Coloradans agree that there is nothing wrong with the current system, the dispute over federal land ownership isn’t likely to go away so long as certain politicians are willing to exploit the emotions associated with the issue for their own gain.

And those emotions run deep. In the West, it’s hard for a fifth generation rancher to see the fairness in having the 100,000 acres of BLM land that his family has used to graze cattle for 150 years suddenly made off limits, sinking his operation and taking away his family’s livelihood. It’s a circumstance that can and is being easily exploited by those recruiting for antigovernment groups.

And with politicians willing to fan the flames of this hate-filled political ideology, it only makes sense that more standoffs, more violence and sadly, more deaths are likely on the horizon when it comes to the ongoing showdown over federal land ownership in the West.