- Setting the Stage for Justice: The Politics of Public Lands in the Contemporary US West
We were the land’s before we were.Or the land was ours before you were a land.Or this land was our land, it was not your land.—Heid E. Erdrich, “The Theft Outright” from National Monuments (2008)
October 2016 ended with dramatic irony on the Western stage as two high-profile standoffs came to a head. Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan, and five other members of their self-styled militia were acquitted after a forty-one-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; on the very same day, October 27, unarmed water protectors in North Dakota were shot with tear gas while engaging in nonviolent political action on behalf of clean water and the protection of Indigenous lands. The protests on the Standing Rock reservation had been gaining momentum since early 2016, as tribes and allies resisted the Dakota Access Pipeline, slated to carry hundreds of thousand of barrels of oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and threatening water supplies and sacred lands at Standing Rock. Under unifying slogans such as “Water is Life,” diverse publics formed and collaborated in digital and face-to-face activism to support tribal sovereignty. Black Lives Matter activists joined their #resistance energies to #NoDAPL efforts, and, at one point, a group of veterans formed a human shield between water protectors and the US military, vowing the pipeline would not be built on their watch.1
The Oregon occupation, by contrast, featured the usual suspects: [End Page ix] rural white people, mostly men, wielding weapons and antigovernment ideologies. The Bundy brothers are sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had, two years earlier, held an armed standoff with the federal government over the years of unpaid fees he had incurred for allowing his cattle to graze on BLM land—fees amounting to more than $1 million. The crew at Malheur was inspired by this earlier standoff, by long-simmering antigovernment sentiments in the West, as well as by Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been imprisoned for arson after setting fires that burned federally managed land. The Bundy brothers and five other Oregon occupiers were acquitted on October 27, 2016, despite holding public lands hostage for over a month, preventing federal workers from doing their jobs, and causing one death in the process. In July 2018 the Hammonds were officially pardoned by President Trump and flown home on a private jet owned by an oil executive with close ties to Vice President Pence.2
Meanwhile, the Trump administration, with former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke as its primary accomplice,3 had begun aggressively shrinking public lands in the West—including Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Obama, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established by President Clinton—in a series of political moves that undermine the Antiquities Act of 1906 specifically and environmental protections more generally. Champions of public lands protection in the West are up in arms, figuratively speaking, although no one has yet taken an armed Bundy-style approach in defense of these lands. Proponents of social justice have been steadily denouncing the administration’s attacks on public lands and the uneven treatment of their defenders. For instance, Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza used her social media platforms to remark: “So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property . . . and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets . . . If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that” (qtd. in Eversley).4
As these two very different protests and their outcomes suggest, debates about how to value, use, and manage public lands in the American West are as controversial as ever, and perhaps even more [End Page x] divisive. Terry Tempest Williams asks in her recent book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks: “What are we to do...