Good Government

Trent England | December 29, 2014

The neo-colonialism of federal planners and urban elites

Trent England

This is the third in a five-part series about federal lands. Legislation adopted in Utah calls on the federal government to transfer certain of these lands to the state. It set a deadline of December 31, 2014.

Colonialism is “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” This definition applies to many western communities surrounded by federal land.

Most federal lands were originally open to use by local people and industries. Yet in classic colonial fashion, distant politicians and bureaucrats now routinely dictate restrictive policies that degrade or destroy local communities. Just one example, the Northwest Forest Plan devised in 1994 reduced logging by 80% for lands originally set aside for that very purpose. Based on bad science about the spotted owl, the plan devastated communities (as the USFS’s own report shows, corresponding with what this writer has seen in these same communities) and increased the intensity of wildfires.

Even some liberal politicians in the West have cried foul as outside interests have worked to shut down the use of lands for the very purposes they were originally preserved.

[Rep. Peter] DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who has closely worked with environmentalists for years, said in an interview that opposition to his bill is coming from "radical groups" that basically want to prevent any logging on western Oregon & California grant lands.

"Basically, these guys want zero cut on federal land," charged DeFazio, who added: "They certainly don't care about rural Oregon and 20 percent-plus unemployment" in some areas.

Another similarity of current federal lands policies with old colonialism is its elitism. While support for locking up the rural West comes disproportionately from urbanites, it is hardly all urbanites who benefit from (or likely care about) this policy. The urban poor, for example, are unlikely to have the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon let alone backpack across the great swaths of new federal wilderness areas. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s annual study on camping, most people sleeping out in tents have been to college (34% are college graduates), have an above-average income, and are white.

Opposition to federal ownership of western lands, particularly the current demand by Utah for the federal government to turn over resource lands to the state, are as American as the American Revolution. Then as now, distant rulers decided to start meddling in local affairs in ways that damaged those communities. And just as the 13 colonies lacked democratic representation, the idea that small western communities have any meaningful say in policies determined thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., (most often in bureaucratic agencies rather than in Congress) is absurd.

The U.S. Constitution left most power at the state level, and states traditionally devolve much of that power to local governments. This is because, beyond a certain size and a few truly national concerns, democratic processes and representative institutions become a farce. Of course, all Americans share a general interest in national defense, foreign policy, and orderly trade. Not coincidentally, those are the powers delegated to the federal government. The interest you have, however, in the street in front of your house or the park down the street is entirely distinct from whatever interest a person living across the country might claim to have in those resources.

As the end-of-year deadline expires on Utah’s demand that Congress turn over federal resource lands to the state, that dispute will move on not just to courts of law, but also and more importantly to the court of public opinion and ultimately to politics. (More about that is available from the American Lands Council and the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Self-Government in the West.) It is time to be true to our heritage as Americans and, whether we live in a state dominated by federal land ownership or not, to call for an end to the neo-colonialism of the federal government in the American West.

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

Loading Next