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Why Does The Federal Government Manage So Much Public Land In The West?


There's still no resolution to the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. The militants there say they are protesting the imprisonment of two local ranchers. They say they'll stay on the refuge until all federal land in the county is under local control. To help us understand why the federal government owns and manages so much public land in the West, we're joined by NPR's Kirk Siegler. He's at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. And, Kirk, to get past the rhetoric of the militants and understand why their cause has gotten some support where you are, give us a little history. I mean, how did the federal government end up owning so much land in the West?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Sure. Well, Kelly, answering this involves literally a tangle of treaties, land swaps, backdoor business deals that go back more than a century. A lot of the territory in this region was once part of Mexico. It then later ended up under U.S. government control. And unlike in a lot of the East, the federal government retained control of most of the public lands out here. When these territories became states, there was this sense that there were so many timberlands and ranges were being carved up and developed. And really beginning under Present Teddy Roosevelt, we saw the government trying to keep control of what it owned and begin to balance all of this for a lot of different uses. Case in point - the wildlife refuge in question that's now in the international spotlight that I'm talking to you from - you know, this is surrounded by, and in places, mixed with land. Originally, the Native Americans were here, then came the cattle barons up from California, as well as the homesteading ranchers. And you can imagine we've got a lot of competing ideas and interests. You had these for so long, and they are still brewing and still very heated today.

MCEVERS: You talk about Teddy Roosevelt - I mean, how does this whole independent streak that a lot of people in the West identify with play into this conflict right now?

SIEGLER: This plays into almost everything we're talking about it here. It's huge. I mean, just consider how remote and sparsely populated Harney County is. It's a three-and-a-half hours drive. It took me three-and-a-half hours to get over here from Boise. It's a very harsh landscape, but people love it, and they're very proud to live out here. And they feel very independent, and you can imagine why. I mean, there's this geographical divide, if nothing else. Washington, D.C., from here seems like a world away. Now, the relationship is tricky. It's complicated because ranchers do get federal subsidies. They get disaster assistance and help with, you know, things like predator control. But locals out here do feel this sense that they're being either pushed off the land or somehow their voices aren't being heard in decisions that are made a long ways away.

MCEVERS: I mean, we're almost a week into this armed occupation at the refuge where you are. What's the latest?

SIEGLER: Well, yesterday, the sheriff met with Ammon Bundy at a very, very remote location, not here at the refuge. He offered to escort him out of the county. Ammon Bundy again told us today that he's not ready to do that. He did say that he plans to leave and his followers plan to leave as, quote, "free men." And, you know, it was a pretty tense atmosphere, actually - one of the more tense atmospheres. There's a daily news conference here. At the end of the press conference, some environmentalists who had driven down from Montana kind of crashed it. And I watched kind of what appeared to be a truck racing after them as they were chased out of here. I mean, it's a very tense situation here still. In the broader community, there's a lot of anxiety. Remember that there are a lot of locals who actually work for the federal government. And so I think there's a lot of people that want this resolved and resolved quickly and peacefully.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Kirk, thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.