May 1, 2019 | By:

The Other Anti-Public-Lands Constituency: Left-Wing Extremists

Repost of Andy Kerr’s Public Lands Blog #132 

Fig. 1. Federal public forestlands recently transferred to the Cow Creek Ban of Umpqua Indians were being managed to protect old-growth forest. Other pictures of formerly public now tribal land that will in all likelihood soon be clearcut can be found hereand here. Source: Francis Eatherington

Fig. 1. Federal public forestlands recently transferred to the Cow Creek Ban of Umpqua Indians were being managed to protect old-growth forest. Other pictures of formerly public now tribal land that will in all likelihood soon be clearcut can be found here and here. Source: Francis Eatherington

(Trigger warning: Politically incorrect thoughts are expressed below. Please do what you have to do to keep yourself safe.)

The public lands conservation community has long been wary of the existential threat to the nation’s public lands posed by a fringe group of right-wing crazies who seek to privatize public lands (perhaps via a brief period of state or county ownership). The conservation community must now also contend with an emerging existential threat to the nation’s public lands posed by fringe groups of left-wing crazies who seek to tribalize public lands. Neither privatization nor tribalization of the nation’s public lands would be in the interests of this and future generations of Americans.

Right-Wing Crazies Get Their Day in Court (Again)

The playbook of the right-wing crazies is well known and is currently best epitomized by the ravings and actions of Cliven Bundy, his sons, and their followers. I deeply examined the bunk of Bundyism in four Public Lands Blog posts (#1#2#3, and #4) in early 2018. Even more illuminating and entertaining than my analysis is Oregon Public Broadcasting’s and Longread’s excellent seven-part series entitled “Bundyville,” available from your favorite podcast purveyor or you can have a long read.

Recently a state court in Nevada, upon the motion of defendant-intervenor Center for Biological Diversity, dismissed Bundy’s latest (alas, it probably won’t be his last) legal gambit. Bundy has tried and lost the same claims in federal court three times. The Clark County, Nevada, judge said, “It is simply delusional to maintain that all public land within the boundaries of Nevada belongs to the State of Nevada.”

But enough on that; back to the other end of the spectrum.

Fig. 2. The Gold Creek timber sale on land owned by the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians but not part of the recent transfer of federal public lands. Lest you think this image is atypical, check out the 106 other contemporaneous photos. Source: Francis Eatherington

Fig. 2. The Gold Creek timber sale on land owned by the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians but not part of the recent transfer of federal public lands. Lest you think this image is atypical, check out the 106 other contemporaneous photos. Source: Francis Eatherington

Left-Wing Crazies Rising

Let us now examine some of those on the other end of the political spectrum who favor the disposal of federal public lands for far different reasons but with comparably disastrous results for the multiple values of the public’s land. This extreme left-wing idea is to return all public lands (but not private lands) to Native Americans.

I do not include in my categorization of left-wing extremists either Native Americans or Native American tribes. While most tribes and tribal members may well want the nation’s public lands (not to mention private lands) returned to them, such a desire arises from the pain, suffering, and loss of being on the losing side of a tragic and sordid history that resulted in the death of most of their ancestors by bullet, rope, disease, or starvation—and that continues to oppress them today. According to the “settler” (the preferred term to describe the European invaders) concept of land ownership, Native Americans had their lands stolen from them, and it is understandable that they should want them back.

I do include in my categorization of left wing-extremists those whose desire arises from guilt at being on the winning side of the European conquest of a continent and its indigenous peoples and who seek to assuage that guilt by advocating giving public lands back to Native Americans while remaining silent on private lands.

DEI and Decolonization

Decolonization is a movement/philosophy/calling that seeks to reverse colonization. Colonization is, according to one authority, “an original belief that one group of people have rights over the people, land, water, and/or resources of a place where another group of people live, supported and reinforced by a set of practices that benefit the colonizers.”

I certainly do not subscribe to colonization.

Decolonization appears to be a way of operationalizing “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). DEI is all the rage among progressive (be they for-profit or not-for-profit) corporations. DEI trainings abound.

While I believe DEI to generally be a good thing, in the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that my consulting firm, The Larch Company, is neither diverse, equitable, nor inclusive. With only one employee who happens to be a middle-aged (my definition expands over time) white male and, I’ve recently learned, a settler, the company has staff meetings that generally go swimmingly (though sometimes there are heated disagreements).

Decolonization is a way to address and reverse the countless catastrophic injustices that have been perpetrated against the colonized (Native Americans, African Americans, and “indigenous” Americans—those of Spanish descent now living in the part of the United States that was once Mexico) by the colonizers.

Decolonization and the Public Lands

Tribalization of public lands is one way to operationalize decolonization.

This is explained in a piece entitled “Decolonizing our environmental movement” in which Jill Fuglister, the Healthy Environment Portfolio director at Meyer (formerly Meyer Memorial Trust), summarizes the University of Oregon Symposium on Environmental Justice, Race, and Public Lands, of which Meyer was a sponsor. In her piece, Fuglister attacks the term “our public lands,” a term I routinely use to mean public land that equitably and inclusively belongs to all of us diverse humans, whatever our ethnic, racial, or cultural background.

Speakers at the symposium talked about how the dominant public lands discourse and practices used to protect public lands tend to reflect and perpetuate settler colonialism: the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society. By talking about “our public lands,” we ignore the truth that all land in the U.S. was tribal land first and that these lands we call “public” were stolen from tribes. This mindset erases the history of Native communities’ relationship with the land and also reinforces a possessive way of relating to land as being “ours.”

Fuglister reports that conference speaker Laura Pulido, UO professor of ethnic studies and geography,

talked about how the use of the Antiquities Act to create new national monument designations that expand public lands can also reinforce settler colonialism, even in some cases where tribes and communities of color are involved in creating these new designations, but not leading them. In her analysis, she shared that “monuments” mark victories, versus “memorials,” which are about not forgetting the past, including the indigenous trauma of the past.

Pulido, according to Fuglister, noted that “public lands efforts don’t generally include repatriation of land to tribes, which is a crucial element for meaningful decolonization.”

Colonialism and the History of Conservation

As part of DEI training for grantees of the Wilburforce Foundation, TREC (Training Resources for the Environmental Community) sponsored a webinar entitled “Colonialism and the History of Conservation” that was presented by the Avarna Group.

Permit me to encapsulate my takeaway messages from the webinar.

1. Colonialism was and is horrible.

2. Colonialism is rooted in the doctrine of discovery (if European Christians didn’t know about the land and no Christians were living on the land, then it could be colonized).

3. Colonialism is also rooted in the doctrine of manifest destiny (white Europeans have not only a right but also a duty to colonize land and oppress or eliminate its human inhabitants).

4. Colonialism is rooted in transcendentalism (Thoreau, Emerson, and others may have shifted the way settlers view nature—sacred, wonderous, etc.—but not the way settlers view blacks and indigenous peoples).

5. Jim Crow laws, and even white supremacy, connect to conservation history.

6. The conservation movement is rooted in the history of the time during which it was founded (the nineteenth century) and therefore has oppressed Native Americans, African Americans, other indigenous people, and also “queer folk,” “poor folk,” and women.

7. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1926, which granted citizenship to Native Americans, was colonialist.

8. Because the very concepts of conservation and public lands are rooted in a colonialist past, conservation and public lands are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ava Holliday of Avarna said, “We have this environmental movement because settlers saw themselves as the rightful owners of the land, water and wildlife; believed it was their divine right and responsibility to settle the land and believed that wild spaces were uniquely American and should be preserved as such.” Further, “the philosophical underpinning of the American environmental movement [is] connected to colonialism and the devaluing of black and indigenous people.”

Holliday also takes great exception to Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks and disagrees that it was America’s “greatest idea.” In my very first Public Lands Blog post entitled “Why Public Lands,” I noted that Burns got this meme from the great American writer, historian, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, who said, “The national park idea, the best idea we ever had, was inevitable as soon as Americans learned to confront the wild continent not with fear and cupidity but with delight, wonder, and awe.” Now I learn it was all just a transcendentalist transgression.

The Environmental Impacts of Tribalization: No Better than Privatization

I recently published a Public Lands Blog post entitled “Trump Signs DeFazio-Walden-Wyden-Merkley Bill Giving Away 50 Square Miles of Federal Public Land in Oregon” about the return of 32,000 acres of public lands in western Oregon—including much old-growth forest—to two Native American tribes. According to the reader feedback I received, readers were generally mostly not okay with the land giveaway, but some were okay. Among the latter, the feedback can be further categorized as either (1) Native Americans are the original and best environmentalists and the land will be better managed, or (2) even if the Native American tribe does road and clear-cut the land just like an American corporation, that’s okay because it is right for the Native Americans to have their land back. If you are in the first subset, your characterization is a stereotypical, if not an outright racist, view. If you are in the second subset, you won’t be unhappy to know that the transferred lands in almost all likelihood will be so logged.

Tribal Ownership: Not the Same as Public Ownership

Tribal lands are not public lands.

Most tribal lands are held in trust by the secretary of the interior (through the Bureau of Indian Affairs) for the respective tribe. Some tribes have bought private lands back and manage them as part of their reservation.

There is no right of public access to tribal lands (nor should there be).

The National Indian Forest Management Act is no National Forest Management Act. Like private timberland owners, some tribes manage their forests better than others. Yet, even what passes for good forest management on tribal lands comes up short compared to management on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings. The forestry division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is notoriously bad.

The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other federal laws minimally apply compared to their applicability on public lands administered by the four federal land management agencies.

As the lands are “owned” by sovereign tribal nations, state law, such as any state forest practices act, does not apply.

A Bad History: Not the Same as a Bad Idea

The argument of these left-wing crazies is that since public lands are rooted in a history of colonization, racism, sexism, and every other ism, public lands are bad. The same can be said for universities and colleges, the electric power grid, the postal service, public libraries, and any number of other great things.

The left-wing crazies’ critique and criticisms of public lands in the United States can be equally applied to private lands in the United States, as both are equally rooted in colonialism. However, such critique and criticisms are not applied to private lands, due to two major differences:

1. Public lands—because they have not been as intensively developed as private lands that are generally covered with farms, ranches, cities, and such—retain some of the original character of the land before colonization. It is easier to imagine Native Americans living in the past on lands now public than on lands now private. When we are looking at Times Square, Iowa cornfields, or a neighborhood in east Portland, the image of Native Americans being at home there is not so easily conjured.

2. It is easier to talk about giving back public lands to Native Americans because they are owned in common by all Americans. It is much harder to talk about giving back to Native Americans private lands that are owned by Americans who hold specific title to them and the property rights that go along with the title. Still, the injustice represented by an acre of public land in our open spaces is comparable to the injustice represented by an acre of private land that contains one or more homes.

I’m waiting for the follow-up conference entitled “University of Oregon Symposium on Environmental Justice, Race, and Private Lands.”

But let’s face it, if these left-wing crazies were logically and ideologically consistent in their views of private versus public lands, they would get less of a following than they have (which, just as for their right-wing crazy counterparts, isn’t much). Further, to avoid hypocrisy, these settlers would have to unsettle their lives and go back where they or their ancestors came from, where they may or may not be welcomed.

Returning public lands to Native Americans is a safe and hypocritical way for self-loathing settlers to assuage their settler guilt without jeopardizing their own (or their parents’) interests in private lands.

Left Wing, But Not Crazy

I also do not include in my categorization of left-wing extremists those generally from the left who want a more inclusive vision for our public lands in the coming century. For example, the Next 100 Coalition has a vision document that calls for public lands that “reflect the demographic and ethnic diversity of our nation’s people among visitors, the agencies’ workforce and in the designation of new units,” and to “actively and authentically engage a diverse range of communities in new and meaningful ways to build support for our public lands and shape the direction of our future public lands and natural resource policies.” As the call is for more and better public lands, not giving away public lands, I’m down with all that.

Toward those ends, President Obama, shortly before leaving office, issued a presidential memorandum entitled “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters.” Of course, then that other president came into office.

My Thoughts on DEI and Public Lands, Because I Was Asked

The Wilburforce-funded, TREC-sponsored, Avarna-presented “Colonialism and the History of Conservation” webinar closed by asking us card-carrying conservationists a series of questions. Below are my brief answers.

What are you conserving and why?  Public lands, waters, and wildlife for this and future generations.

What are the values behind your conservation work?  It is in the enlightened self-interest of humanity to conserve and restore functioning ecosystems and watersheds across the landscape and over time because the preservation of our species, not to mention of other species, depends upon the preservation of nature. Public lands, which are inclusively and equitably held by the diverse group of all Americans, are of existential importance.

What are the assumptions you make about the relationship of humans to the spaces you conserve?  (1) We need vast expanses of nature (actually half the Earth) where a human is “a visitor who does not remain” (Wilderness Act of 1964); (2) humans, because of both our sheer (and increasing) numbers and our appetite for material goods, cannot be one with nature if we are going to have the nature we need to survive as a species; (3) pre-settlement Native Americans were not in harmony with their environment; and (4) all Americans, be they settlers, Native Americans, or African Americans, had and have environmental impacts and need to restrain themselves and leave room for nature.

Who benefits from your work?  Species that cannot talk and humans not yet born.

Who is left out? Humans who are greedy, arrogant, and self-centered, wherever they fall on the diversity spectrum, now or in the future.

Who is driving the decisions?  Me.

In a future Public Lands Blog post I will suggest an equitable alternative to the tribalization of federal public lands.


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4 years ago

Really good. I look forward hearing about an equitable alternative to tribalization of public lands.

Cooper Freeman
4 years ago

This just out from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodivisery and Ecosystem Service –

“Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.”

Some tribes may wish to create economy in a degrading way with land they are given back, but surely many, many tribes, including many here in Northern California, have visions for deep stewardship much beyond that of our public lands. On average, studies show land does much better under indigenous stewardship.

Is there not a more nuanced point to make about the return of tribal land and potential complications? You seem to be focusing on this one example of the tribe in Oregon – do you have other examples? Again, I can list many, many examples of tribes here in northern California doing deep stewardship on the land they have been given back and are buying back – stewardship much beyond anything happening on public lands, that the “public” would even allow to happen.

Yes, some indigenous communities overshot and their societies collapsed due to environmental mismanagement, but to do away with the whole idea of returning land to tribes seems at best misguided and removes a key strategy to move rapidly on land protection and restoration, and at worst, continuing trends you mention in your article as “extremist.”

4 years ago


It seems to me that where you and I differ is that you believe that many tribes are good land stewards, while I believe that a few are. Please share the studies to which you refer about “land does much better under indigenous stewardship.” Such has not been my observations.

While perhaps your quotation is correct on a global scale, “on average” conclusions should not be generally applied to North American indigenous peoples. On average, tribes in the US and Canada, though often very poor (though gambling facilities have made some tribes very well capitalized), have more rights, more (relative) power, and have much more access to capital than do average indigenous peoples across the globe. Therefore, they have more power to manage their land in either a good or bad way.

Based on my biased and small sample (generally PNW-based tribes), it seems to me that every tribe has its traditionalist faction and its economic development faction. Tribal leadership often switches between the two. Of course, the victories of the economic developers are generally more lasting and less irreversible than the victories of the traditionalists.

I just don’t think that public lands, which belong to all of us and, for the sake of the climate and biodiversity, need to generally managed so has nature has her way, should be returned to tribes. In my experience, tribes want to manage every acre, sometimes in less intensive and less harmful ways that private landowners or public land mangers. I am in favor of managing large areas by leaving them alone, not messed with by human of any kind, group, or active management philosophy.

I am in favor of reparations, but in the form of money. A tribe could then choose to do what it wants with the funds, including using it to tribalize what are now private lands.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x