- The President Stole Your LandPublic Lands and the Settler Commons
In the United States what constitutes “public lands” has never been stable. Notions of the public and their commons were a fickle matter of political contest and power relations before the beginning of what is currently called America. Today, who and what serve to underwrite, define, and profit from “public lands” is a debate often expressed in cataclysmic language. Militarized government officials and extrastate militias extend across our shared social, political, and physical landscapes, as our terrains seem to scar, wither, blister, and combust in ways even our most apocalyptic and dystopic imaginations struggle to comprehend. Can we protect a piece of this world for all of us? Can we fight for the land that we live in and love? How do we survive the end of the world that seems so fast approaching? Who are the “we” in these questions?
The issues that immediately arise in discussions of the commons—namely whose commons and for what purposes—often still assume a public that is, in fact, particular to white settler subjects. As a settler scholar raised by uninvited hippies, loggers, and mill workers on Kalapuyailihi (Kalapuya homelands), I frequently find myself implicit in the publics universalized in, and made invisible by, current debates over public lands. From my vantage point in the middle of this “we” supposedly anticipating or already suffering the beginning of the end of the world of public lands, it is difficult to decipher the apocalyptic language commoning settler colonial capitalism, making it, as it were, so ordinary as to be almost imperceptible. Almost.
This article takes two examples of contemporary debates over public lands as paradigmatic case studies for the ways apocalyptic [End Page 49] appeals populate and naturalize the “settler commons” across the spectrum of US politics (Fortier). Through the comparison it finds a convergence in what are often seen as irreconcilable differences between leftist environmentalisms and libertarian land-use logics. Apocalyptic depictions of the coming or in-progress collapse of the commons naturalize a space that both white environmentalists and white nationalists share. It then turns to apocalyptic imaginations of public space beyond the settler commons, concluding in a tentative example of the commons as indeed not static, not settled, but as an invitation to ongoing practice-based relationships of responsibility that require some of us—like me—to learn in public. Public lands, I find, are the spaces in which we are held accountable to very particular publics. In the patois of pithy prose, public land is a verb.
First, in December of 2017 the Trump administration announced its decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments in Utah. In response the outdoor equipment retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, which they emailed to all their customers and used to fill their website’s main page. The ad was simple: a stark black background occupied with the striking white words, “The President Stole Your Land.” This alert was underwritten with a byline describing the “illegal” reduction as “the largest elimination of protected land in American history.” This minimalist ad showcases a mode of commoning common to, but often obscured in, the supposedly irreconcilable political divide characterizing debates around US public lands.
In its brief text lurk the language of federal overreach, land theft, breach of constitutional rights, and the tyranny of the federal government that is not just reminiscent of but exactly the same rhetoric touted by many sectors of white nationalism. Here is, in all its simplicity, an idea of public lands shared by much mainstream environmentalism as well as states-rights proponents such as those supporting Cliven Bundy’s 2014 Nevada standoff and the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by Cliven’s sons, Ammon and Ryan. At Malheur, Ammon Bundy echoed his father to emphasize the duty to protect “the people” from a tyrannical government bent on stealing land.1 Much of the protest of the Malheur occupation parroted the same language to decry the theft [End Page 50] of public lands. We have a duty to protect “our land,” say the...