There is an old saying, the power of government is not absolute until it can be exercised arbitrarily. Increasingly we see that sort of power exercised by our federal government.
Take the ongoing stand-off in Oregon at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. There, militia members occupy the federal buildings in response to the federal government’s re-jailing of two local ranchers.
The ranchers were charged with arson under a federal anti-terrorism statute for starting prescribed burn and back-burn fires on their ranch – when the fires then spread and burned 140 acres of federal public land. Perhaps the ranchers did not take proper precautions, but the punishment of federal prison time – followed by additional federal prison time for terrorism, appears disproportionate to the crime.
How so? The federal government conducts prescribed burns as a land management tool and sometimes these burns get out of control – way out of control. In April 2013, the U.S. Forest Service’s prescribed burn near Lemmon, South Dakota, got out of control and consumed 11,000 acres of public and private land. The federal response to the $2.5 million tort claim from locals: “Our review of the claim discloses no liability on the part of the United States. Therefore, your Federal Tort Claims Act claim is denied.”
So, 140 acres burned warrants jail time for U.S. citizens, but 11,000 acres are scorched by the federal government – and accountability is denied. The Animus River spill, which involved an old mine in Colorado, is another example of double standards. Imagine what would have happened to a private party had it released the same toxic spill that the EPA unleashed.
When we examine the protester’s actions in the context of federal land policy, it is easy to understand their frustration about the injustice of jailing the Oregon ranchers. The problem with such direct action, however, is that it tends to distract us from what needs to be done. The media will inevitably focus on the weakest argument or the character flaws of the participants and the larger story will be missed.
The heavy-handed treatment of the Hammond ranch family is but one page of the ongoing saga of the federal government’s plan to assume control over lands in the west. Locals are seen as an impediment to the consolidation of power and are treated accordingly. Let’s use this example as yet another reason to transfer lands back to the states for local control.