A Forum on Cognitive Dissonance

As a libertarian, I have a responsibility to court both sides of the political spectrum to look for allies and help people see a different perspective, while also broadening and better informing my own. A while back, I attended a local Republican committee meeting on the Common Core with that in mind, and last night I attended a forum hosted by The Center for Western Priorities on public lands management. While the topics were markedly different, the sentiment was mostly the same at both: the other side is wrong – dead wrong – and we must not allow them any medium for their message.

Me and Meg from last year’s annual Stillwater Trek
Now let me say up front, lest I be cast in with those seen as demonic by last night’s audience: I am 100% in favor of keeping public lands public. I’ll say it again: I do not advocate that any lands that are currently public be sold or transferred into private hands. I moved to Montana for the spiritual connection that the environment here affords. What I am not in favor of is letting those resources languish with an $11.5 billion dollar backlog of maintenance and repairs while the federal government continues to add new lands to the equation, thus further burdening and already anemic system.
One of last night’s speakers made an interesting comment, that he didn’t inherit these lands from his forefathers, he is borrowing them from his children and grandchildren. But like a great many other programs that our federal government controls, what will eventually be inherited by those grandchildren may be a shadow of its former self, and in a state of waste and utter disrepair if left to the government’s machinations. The same speaker called out against any attempt at transfer of lands to the states, or anything resembling it, saying that the mere mention of any such thing is distraction, a smokescreen, and simply anti-American. What a way to start a dialogue.
From the five scheduled speakers, and a few unscheduled ones, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance going on. The first panel member, rancher Brad Sauer, reminded the audience of the Einstein quote that the same level of intelligence that creates a certain problem cannot be relied upon to solve said problem. However, every single speaker, including Mr. Sauer, said unequivocally that there can be nary a whiff of state involvement in the oversight of federal lands. Even when that quote was refreshed in the minds of the audience later, there was no acknowledgment of the inherent irony of its being mentioned.
I understand the trepidation of those present: if ownership of these lands are turned over to cash-strapped states with balanced budget provisions in their constitutions, there would be little choice in times of difficulty except to sell lands to pay the bills for maintenance (though one could argue that provisions could easily be made to prevent that). And despite there being some rich folks like the Rockefellers who eventually bequeathed lands for public use as a refuge on the borders of Grand Teton, most affluent people who buy up that land want it for their own use, and no one else’s.
However, at some point you have to recognize when a system is failing its mission. Panelist Randy Newberg of Fresh Tracks admitted it was, and left the blame for that on the doorstep of congressmen who he claims are deliberately depriving the system of needed funding. But when the room was polled as to whether they felt that the lands were being properly managed by the federal government, just over half the room raised their hands. The person inquiring then responded that response was unique, and far fewer people in the communities that abut those lands agree with their assessment. I wanted him to take the question one step further: how many people in the room know the actual objective of public lands management? Because all that most people in the room talked about was hunting, fishing, hiking and recreation, which is only a portion of the mission. Actually, it is a relatively small portion, though it seems to be the only thing that Interior Secretary and former Recreational Equipment, Inc. CEO Sally Jewell focuses on.
Herein lies the problem. You have concentrations of urban activists who want to preserve these lands for public recreational use for the one weekend a month or two weeks a year that they spend on them. All the while, people who have made a living off this land for generations, and are continuing to try to do so, are met with one new regulation after another that inhibits their ability to do so. Or they are presented with new rules, written by an unsympathetic Interior department without legislative involvement, that make it impossible to mine coal or harvest timber productively. And productive use of the lands and resources is in fact an integral part of the Interior’s charter. Instead we are faced with insect infestations because of under-harvesting, more wildfires due to greater fuel amounts, and general lack of health in forests not being maintained appropriately.
The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions written on index cards, and I took mine from a quote that I heard in remarks made by Ryan Callaghan, PR Director for First Lite sporting goods: “Competition breeds really good things”. Mr. Callaghan was speaking of competing for game with other hunters on public lands, but I used this as an opportunity to ask: with that $11 billion dollar backlog and lack of federal attention, would it not be better to have the states manage the lands, and learn from each other in the process, rather than have them under the oversight of one neglectful monopoly?
The question was answered by three panelists, all who overlooked the careful semantics of my employing ‘manage’ versus ‘take ownership’. Mr. Newburg and Mr. Sauer both said the same thing: they’d be sold off to the highest bidder by the states. Since my question was written, I did not have the opportunity to clarify, but given the tenor of the entire conversation, I wasn’t given the impression there was any room for discussion anyway.
At the close of the meeting, an impromptu speaker, Ron Moody, called attention again to the lack of rural representation by asking how many people in the room were involved in agriculture or ranching (I wish he had extended it to timber and mining, but… not my question). No hands were raised from the audience. He then lamented how disconnected these urban constituencies are from the rural ones that their lobbying affects, a sentiment echoed by panelist John Sepulvado from Oregon Public Broadcasting. But Mr. Moody followed that sentiment by saying there were too few opportunities for the folks in the room to connect meaningfully with folks in those rural communities. So I gave him one.
I live in a community where the two largest economic engines are ranching and mining, along with a renowned silversmith operation. Our county’s population of under 10,000 is spread out over 1,800 square miles putting it at 50% larger than Rhode Island, and just a bit smaller than Delaware. While the mine in our area is operating well and without issue from federal regulation, the 200-plus people they have laid off over the last two years have no other mining opportunities within Montana because of the overwhelming bureaucratic (not regulatory) barriers to starting a new such enterprise. So I decided to introduce myself to Mr. Moody and thank him for his comments, in attempt to make the connection he felt was so lacking.
When I did, I was rather disheartened. Despite comments from speakers about all the new faces in the room that they needed to engage, Mr. Moody simply asked me where I lived, and then offered  a cordial ‘nice meeting you’ and turned away to talk with the folks he came in with.
Leaving the forum, I learned quite a bit. Mr. Sauer’s historical perspective was a refreshing one, and Mr. Callaghan spoke of the $646 billion dollar US outdoor industry, of which Montana astonishingly receives less than one percent (1%). A representative from Rep. Ryan Zinke’s office spoke of new legislation to give state governors and tribal leaders some amount of flexibility in how a limited amount of their public lands are managed, while keeping them very much public. What I didn’t hear, not from a single person, is a plan to move forward, to engage those who hold other viewpoints, and to ensure these lands aren’t just kept public, but are preserved for future generations.
I also didn’t get the impression that anyone wanted to have that discussion either.
[Note: There was an inordinate amount of time spent on the occupation of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon. I have left out all of that discussion because I found it oddly immaterial to the forum’s stated intention, and only serving to further galvanize resentment towards people who hold opinions that differ from their own (a sentiment confirmed by a question raised later). This is despite two NPR representatives present who both said they were reticent to offer their opinions, after using a great deal of language that could be considered nothing other than subjective.]