Right-wing “local control” movement spreads in California fire country

In February 2019, a year and a half before the Creek Fire destroyed an unprecedented 379,895 acres of California forests, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig shared his thoughts on preventing wildfires with the local newspaper. from Central Valley, the Clovis Roundup.

“The responsibility for the state of our forests lies with all of us,” he said.

A fair and reasonable catch. But that was in 2019. In the wake of the recent mega-fires, such weighting seems to have become a less discussed fire victim.

The problem particularly arose with the discovery by the US Forest Service that the cause of the brook fire was “undetermined; lightning probable ”, which made an unsatisfactory narrative among many Magsig voters. If the lighting was an act of God, it made the task of assigning blame much more difficult.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups took turns being blamed for the overcrowded forest, but they turned out to be inadequate scapegoats. They do not “own” the land – the federal government owns this trust. Now, government agencies seen as obstacles to logging and removing the fire fuel load, such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service, have become prime targets.

As locals rampage, Magsig’s stance has hardened – and, during town hall meetings his office has organized, a new, arguably dangerous phrase has entered his lexicon: “local control.”

He first discussed the idea with Vice President Kamala Harris and Governor Gavin Newsom during their visit to the disaster area of ​​Creek Fire in September 2020. And in an October 25 letter of this year to Fish and Wildlife Service, Magsig wrote that “those who work or have businesses in the mountains … naturally favor appropriate and efficient forest management. State and federal laws and regulations have contributed to the current state of the forest and the devastating consequences we have experienced. My constituents and I believe it is best to leave the preservation and management of forests to local control.

Too bad for “the blame lies with us all”.

In California, as in much of the West, the definition of “local control” tends to change with your location – at a school board meeting on a public school campus, at a meeting of the county planning commission or standing in a national forest. The sentence might sound harmless enough, but context is everything.

Local control in the context of federal land ownership has a history with several aliases, including Sagebrush Rebellion (1970s-1980s) and County Supremacy (1990s and current). By any name, it means the same thing: a land and power grabbing strategy that calls for taking federal Crown lands away from Americans who do not live in the neighborhood – and handing those lands and resources back to them. residents who “naturally” know how to best manage them, including local governments easily pressured by narrow financial interests and industries.

The problem is that this takeover of federal lands is unconstitutional, running up against the supremacy and ownership clauses of the US Constitution. The Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it gives Congress power over United States property, including the nation’s land holdings.

Nonetheless, in recent decades, high-profile cases involving the elimination of federal control over Western lands have degenerated into dangerous dead ends. Most have been associated with grazing permits on federal rangelands. This was the case with the Bundy clan, especially Ammon and his father, Cliven, local control activists who engaged in an armed confrontation with federal officials at the family’s Nevada ranch in 2014 – because Cliven refused to pay grazing fees for herding his cattle on federal lands.

In 2016, Ammon Bundy joined fellow local control activists Dwight and Steven Hammond, convicted arsonists and armed occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. (The Hammonds were pardoned by President Donald Trump in 2018.)

Ammon Bundy has continued to advance his local control agenda through his people’s rights organization, which includes militia members, anti-masks, conspirators, doomsday planners, and anti-vaccines. among its core members. Ammon himself hates politicians so much that he can’t wait to be one – he announced his campaign for governor of Idaho in June.

Maintain the extreme: this is the model.

The Hammonds and Bundys are better known faces in the recent reincarnation of the local control movement, but if what is happening in Fresno County is any sign, then the local control infantry in the war on federal stewardship of the United States. Western lands have opened up a new front in California: one involving the “danger to public safety” of forests and the communities that burn with them in fires.

In a classic move to blame the victim, the Forest Service – long deprived of funding to adequately deal with the fuel load in climate-modified forests – is quickly becoming political football of choice.

More thoughtful local involvement in federal forest management would be welcome – and if that was what “local control” meant, I could see the need for it. Yet in and around the burnt area of ​​Creek Fire, political attacks on environmentalists and government agencies are now being used as a backbone for the activities of local control extremists.

The bewilderment, frustration, pain and suffering in burn scars from the California megafires and adjacent lands provide fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment of anti-government groups – far beyond Fresno County . Check out the Facebook pages of any county in northern California or southern Oregon with a “Jefferson State” organization.

Amidst petitions, rally announcements, and accounts of the movement’s more than 80 years of history, you’ll find statements like this one, from Bob Chard, Oregon Director for Jefferson State, posted in Sierra County, Calif. for State of Jefferson Group on Facebook: “How many acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land are located in any of the original 13 states?” The answer is, there aren’t any in any of them! So when we become a new state, we can enter with the same status as they have no BLM lands within our borders! They will become lands of the State of Jefferson and will henceforth be under local control. Forest Service lands will most likely come with BLM lands. Chard goes on to talk about Utah’s attempts to pass such a “land transfer” and the need for activists in Jefferson State to stay motivated.

The land grabbing activities of anti-government groups could benefit local interests like cattle ranching and the forest products industry (at least for a while), but this benefit comes at a high cost to all Americans who believe that some public properties are poorly served. by being transformed into private profits.

Turning this part of the Sierra National Forest into the woodland of Fresno County will not solve the forest’s problems. Local control movements, at their best, too often invoke ineffective fairytale nostalgia for a mythical West long gone. At worst, they advocate cynical and dangerous transfers of public assets into private hands and foment radical anti-government hostility.

Howard Hendrix is ​​President of the Highway 168 Fire Safe Council and a long-time firefighter with the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department (Fresno County).

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