- - Tuesday, February 2, 2016


There’s nothing like a fatal shooting to rile a community. The chain of events that led to the death of a rebellious rancher along a country road in Oregon last week is still under investigation, but for Americans who yearn for the wide-open spaces of the West, freedom’s last refuge, the tragedy spells oppression. To them, Western lives matter. The descendants of the pioneers complain that federally owned wilderness that nobody wanted is more and more off-limits to them, threatening to end a way of life rooted in the freedom to roam.

At the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., the boundaries between public and private land, government property and private spreads, have in the past seemed little more than a suggestion. But the federal government have hardened the rules governing the grazing cattle on public land, threatening the livelihoods of ranchers. When a father and son were jailed in January on charges of trespassing and arson on refuge property bordering their own, a group of armed protesters called Citizens for Constitutional Freedom occupied the refuge. A standoff followed between armed ranchers and law officers. Protest turned violent on Jan. 26 when police pulled over a van carrying eight members of the group. The group’s spokesman, a 55-year-old man from Arizona, was shot and killed when, the officers say, he resisted arrest.

The Oregon standoff rekindles controversy over the federal government’s huge holdings of Western lands. Uncle Sam owns about 635 million of the 2.3 billion acres making up the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes 80 percent of Nevada. When the government dispensed land grants in the 19th century, the dry reaches of the West made up territory that nobody but ranchers looking for grazing land wanted. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management was established to oversee the vast unoccupied expanses.

Private and public land afforded ranchers plenty of elbow room then, but environmentalists often regard any human activity as wanton abuse of nature and are jealously protective of federally owned mountains and plains. Strict rules governing its use make the locals suspicious that their freedom to roam has been co-opted by “green” interests back East who wouldn’t know a longhorn from a bullhorn.

Presidents have frequently invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 to sequester millions of acres as protected national monuments owing to their “historic or scientific interest,” weasel words that land-management bureaucrats can, and do, apply to plots large and small almost anywhere. The 19 national monuments President Obama has created or expanded, totaling more than 2 million acres, include a building in Chicago to preserve the site of the famous Pullman strike in 1894.

The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ‘80s sought to loosen Washington’s grip and cede federal wilderness back to state and local control. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, like Ronald Reagan before them, want to revive the Sagebrush Rebellion. Ranchers should put down their guns and be selective in identifying varmints. They will have a new opportunity this year to make their case with a new president.

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