The armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon want that and other federal land in Harney County ‘returned’ to private ownership. But most of that county was never privately owned…. (More)

“To get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching”

Demands for the ‘return’ of federal lands are a staple complaint of white ‘patriots’ and ‘sovereign citizens’:

Ammon Bundy told [in early January] reporters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that ranchers, loggers and farmers should have control of federal land – a common refrain in a decades-long fight over public lands in the West.

“It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching,” said the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.

Their complaint is based on an imagined history of white ranchers and loggers owning vast tracts of land that were later ‘seized’ by the federal government. As proof they offer the fact that the federal government owns 75% of Harney County, where the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is located.

That statistic is true, but the rest of that history is pure myth. In fact, white ranchers and loggers never owned much of Harney County.

“Fifty-four forty or fight!”

Like the rest of Oregon, Washington, and parts of neighboring states, the U.S. acquired Harney County in the 1846 Oregon Treaty. Until that treaty, that area was the topic of a decades-long dispute between the U.S. and Britain:

Far to the north and west of Texas, the United States and several other nations vied for the Oregon Country: the land north of California and west of the Rocky Mountains. The territory was variously claimed from the sixteenth century by Spain, Russia, Britain, and the United States. However, by the mid-1820s, only the American and British claims endured. The two nations agreed in 1818 to a “joint occupation” of Oregon in which citizens of both countries could settle; this arrangement lasted until 1846.

The Oregon settlers from the United States and Britain were very different groups. The British were chiefly fur traders associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, while the Americans were a more eclectic lot. American settlement began in the 1830s when Protestant missionaries moved into the Wilamette Valley. Their accounts of the fertile soil of the region spread rapidly to the East and spurred a massive migration of thousands of American families westward along the Oregon Trail. The resulting population disparity along with an overall decline in the fur trade, convinced the British government to work for a negotiated settlement to the Oregon issue.

The 49th Parallel had long been the de facto border between the U.S. and British Canada, but during the 1844 election campaign James Polk promised to secure sole U.S. rights all the way up beyond the 54th Parallel. In response, the British asserted a claim all the way down to the 42nd Parallel, the limits of the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty that settled Spain’s claim to the land. Polk won the election and tried to enforce his diplomatic demand, and the slogan “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” was coined as a battle cry. But most Americans didn’t want a war with Britain … and in 1848 the Oregon Treaty set the boundary where the relative handful of whites who lived there had always agreed: at the 49th Parallel.

“He established it not on rancher’s lands”

And “relative handful of whites” is an accurate description of Harney County’s population throughout the 19th century:

In the 19th century the basin was inhabited by the Northern Paiute tribe. It was explored and extensively trapped by trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s. The basin lay far off the route of the Oregon Trail, but in 1845 experienced mountain man Stephen Meek led an ill-fated party across the basin via Stinkingwater Pass, seeking a shortcut to The Dalles along what has become known as the Meek Cutoff. A total of 23 people died while the party wandered in the basin until finding water at the Crooked River.

Because of its climate it received sparse white settlement and was largely left to the Paiute until the late 19th century. Settlement pressures and conflicts with the Paiute in other areas of Oregon caused President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 to create a reservation for the Paiute encompassing Malheur Lake and much of the basin. Growing settlement pressures, in particular the discovery of gold in the surrounding mountains, as well as the interest of white settlers to form ranches in the region, caused the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to abruptly terminate the reservation in 1879. The Northern Paiute would survive virtually landless until obtaining tracts of land near Burns in 1935.

But the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sold only tiny patches of the land, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Malheur Wildlife Refuge … on land that had belonged to the Paiutes and/or the U.S. government since 1848:

[Nancy] Langston, a professor of environmental history at Michigan Technical University and author of Where Land and Water Meet: Watershed Change in Arid West, joined Think Out Loud Wednesday to add an academic perspective to this ongoing story. According to Langston, the notion that it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to own land is “simply incorrect.” She called attention to both the Property Clause in the U.S Constitution and “several landmark Supreme Court decisions” that affirm the government’s land-owning rights.

“There’s no question that the 640 million acres of federal public lands are legal and constitutional,” Langston said. “The claim that these wildlife refuges are not legal because somehow they pushed out ranchers back at the turn of the century, I think that’s also incorrect.”

Langston pointed out that President Theodore Roosevelt established the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 1908.

“He established it not on rancher’s lands, not on state’s lands, but rather on federal lands, that had actually been repossessed by the Paiute Tribe,” she said, “so if there’s any group of people in the basin that do have prior claims to the refuge lands, I think the Paiute are the group we need to consider.”

And that’s pretty much the story throughout the west, where the 1804 Louisiana Purchase and 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo added vast tracts of mostly federally-owned land to the expanding United States. Both treaties recognized the few privately-owned land tracts that existed when they were signed. But as with the Oregon Treaty, most of the land was claimed by Native American tribes, by Spanish families whose presence predated Mexican independence … or by no private owner at all.

That last category – subject to no private claim at all – accounted for well over half of land acquired the Louisiana Purchase, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and the Oregon Treaty. It was owned by the U.S. government from the time those treaties were signed. And most of the current U.S. government land in those areas was simply never sold or opened for homesteading.

So these white ‘patriots’ and ‘sovereign citizens’ want the federal government to ‘return’ land that was never owned by white individuals. From the time it became part of the U.S., it was publicly owned and managed by the federal government.

So cue up Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen with Woody Guthrie’s classic, performed at President Obama’s first Inaugural:

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Photo Credit: The Oregon Coast

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Good day and good nuts