Citizens Get Their Property Back

Public lands are the backbone of hunting and angling in the West

By Rob Breeding

I don’t like to dismiss the opinions of others, even those with whom I disagree, passionately. Everyone has something useful to add to our public discourse, I hope.

Take the Bundy clan — Cliven, Ammon and Ryan — who now occupy well-deserved spots in jail. Even these knuckleheads have made a profound contribution to our national conversation about public lands.

After Cliven’s stunt in Nevada two years ago, and the Bundy boys almost-comical occupation of a wildlife preserve in Oregon for the last month or so, it should now be clear to all hunters, anglers and lovers of the outdoors that fighting to protect access our public lands has become is as fundamental as say, buying a fishing license or a good pair of hiking boots.

I say “almost comical” because of the death of occupier LaVoy Finnicum. While this appears a case of suicide by cop, it remains a tragedy for both the deceased’s survivors as well as the law enforcement officer who apparently was forced by Finnicum’s actions (fumbling for a gun under his coat) to use deadly force.

If Finnicum had submitted to law enforcement we might now all be having a good laugh that the rest of the occupiers have been taken into custody and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is once again in the hands of its rightful owners: all American citizens.

But we have to take seriously the agenda of the Bundys and their militia-sympathizers. They represent just one of the many fronts under which public access is being attacked. In addition to these so-called constitutionalists, examples abound of the other strategies being used to keep the public out. We’re all now familiar with this sad, and unfortunately incomplete list:

  • Land owners with private property near public lands hanging “No Trespassing” signs on public roads, then daring the public to try to pass.
  • Legislators across the West wasting taxpayer money with phony studies and other schemes to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and into the hands of states. Step two: have a fire sale of these same lands to private parties, ending the tradition of access and recreation that is fundamental to what makes the West great.
  • Chipping away at, or eliminating altogether, access rights to rivers and streams. These historic rights of way, as well as the water that creates them, are public resources. The privatizers want to end that.

The Bundys’ creative and selective reading of the Constitution convinced them that more than 200 years of judicial and legislative history in this country is irrelevant. Only their interpretation matters. Everything else is a usurpation of “freedoms.” Remarkably, they seem unaware that outside their small circle of the like-minded, they’re considered a bit nutty.

Public lands are the backbone of hunting and angling in the West. Hunting, at least as we know it, would not exist without public land. Angling would also be seriously curtailed. Think about, say, the Flathead National Forest. We hike, we hunt, we fish on that forest. When we’re tired of all that fun, we set up camp. Heck, we even have the right to go out and be eaten by a griz if that’s our desire. We basically have the run of the place.

Now imagine those places in the hands of the Bundys, or maybe the Wilks Brothers, Texas billionaires who are buying up eastern Montana. That’s a world where every journey ends at a “No Trespassing” sign, where every hunting trip begins with a request to pass from the Lord of the Manor, a future where fewer kids learn to fish or hunt or to love a hike that ends with muscles so sore you can barely muster another step.

So thanks Bundy boys for reminding us of the importance of our public lands heritage, and that we can’t afford to stand idly by while it’s stolen from us.

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