This land is your land? Not so fast


Framing Thugs & Heroes: Part 2

If you look at how the news media covered the actions of a troupe of armed men (well, mostly men) who occupied a government building and wildlife sanctuary in Oregon in January 2016, you will discover a narrative that barely covers the Native tribes and instead gives voice to the protesters.

The protestors, according to reports from mainstream media like Oregon Public Radio (OPB) and the New York Times, want to roll back restrictions on land where they graze their cattle.

Turns out the land in question is public land: territory that is protected and controlled by the US government and held in trust for all citizens.

That means ranchers and campers and fishing-folk and hikers and miners and American Indians–anyone–have access to the land.

The public territory is controlled by the government: some 500 million acres (mostly in the western US) according to the 2014-2018 report of the Department of the Interior, which was written under the guidance of former secretary Sally Jewell.

How big are 500 million acres?

That’s about the size of Mexico or Saudi Arabia.

Or one-fifth of the US.

Cattle ranchers, miners, loggers and other folk can lease the land for personal and commercial use in exchange for paying a fee.

Which brings us back to the story of the protesters who held the Oregon wildlife refuge hostage.

Protesters argued that they should not have to pay for using the land.

Turns out grazing fees have barely changed in 31 years, and rose only slightly from $1.35 to $1.65 (per animal each month) since Ronald Regan was president.

Fees received from ranchers hardly cover the costs of maintaining the public lands, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Grazing fees cover less than 13% of the cost of managing the grazing program, so, in effect, the government subsidizes cattle-ranchers.

Yet the protestors claim they should pay nothing.

And nothing is what Cliven Bundy has paid in grazing fees: he owes more than $1 million in grazing fees, according the The LA Times.

That’s one million bucks owed to taxpayers (that’s you and me), according to the Times.

And despite court rulings in favor of the US government–that Bundy needs to pay up–he continues to graze his cattle on public land: illegally.

Cliven Bundy is the erstwhile figure-head in the land protests, although he doesn’t even live in Oregon.

But it’s his son–Ammon–who led the protest in Oregon and the seizure of the Malheur Wildlife refuge in January 2016, and fashioned a rhetorical argument that equates Cliven’s (and other ranchers’) interests with the public interest.

Ammon isn’t a rancher, and hails from Nevada and lives in Idaho.

The Bundy family feels it doesn’t owe the government anything: this land is our land.

Which means: this land is their land.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940, was disheartened at the prospect of private control over streams and forests, and believed whole-heartedly that the territory should be shared:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me

What Guthrie knew in his bones–and what the Bundys got wrong–is that the spirit of the song is that we all share public lands.

That means ranchers and miners and hikers need to either pay taxes that enable the government to manage the lands, or pay fees for the privilege to use the land for their livelihoods or recreation.


And where did these so-called public lands come from?

The answer is simple: just look at a map of the state of Oregon.

You can see more than half of the state is reserved by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management–both which fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior.

The Department of the Interior manages more than land and water: it also manages relationships with American Indian tribes.

Missing from the narrative of the Malheur Wildife Refuge takeover is the story of how American Indian occupied these lands long before settlers arrived in Oregon.

If you lay today’s map of public lands over the map of Indian lands from the 1700s, the picture crystallizes.

The territory we now consider “public,” where the Bundys graze their cattle, was summarily seized by the US government.

29 June 2017




About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, framing, Indian relocation, Indian remains, journalism, native american, native press, Native Science, news bias and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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