Easterners, Look West
Land-use rules are shrinking freedoms in the American West — easterners should stand warned.

A Grand view (Dreamstime)


My trip to the desert southwest two weeks ago helped me understand practically, even more than physically, why most of us in the East don’t really know what it is like to live in the West. Yet we desperately need to learn about the increasing obstacles to the pursuit of happiness in the West if we hold our liberties dear. Fortunately, help is on its way.

The urban elites of California, Washington State, and Oregon are hard at work growing government debt and inventing new schemes to shrink our liberty, but urban progressives are similar throughout America. The western lifestyles that are most obscure to us are those in California’s Central Valley, the desert Southwest, the rural Northwest, the Rocky Mountain States, Alaska, Hawaii, and small coastal communities. Our understanding of the practical and legal plight of farmers, ranchers, and ordinary property owners there is typically very limited.

To take one important example, federal authorities seem to have designated far more “critical habitat” for supposedly threatened or endangered critters in the West, which could be for several reasons: It’s politically easier to regulate land when more of it is undeveloped, especially because many environmentalists have a religious-like zeal to prevent development by any means possible; the federal government owns most of the land, so limitations on its parcels are usually to statutory and contractual rights to graze, mine, log, or enjoy it for recreation; it is indeed more critical to more threatened species; or a combination of such factors.

But whatever the reason, that experience, and the questionable science that supports many government decisions, are strong reasons to think that land almost anywhere could be subject to such designation with enough bureaucratic resolve, attention, and pseudo-scientific study. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any critter or plant, sentient or not, will do. In short, this special government love could be lavished on your town soon.

These seemingly random acts of government land control have probably already affected parts of every eastern state too (federal agency records are not much more transparent with regard to such controls than they are with the attack in Benghazi), but as of yet, they have not caused as widespread economic harm as people are already feeling in the West. Few should dispute that millions of people in the West have been suffering the economic devastation from the primary or secondary effects of designations related to the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, the desert tortoise on grazing land in the rural West, the delta smelt on critical water rights and agriculture in the Central Valley, and many more localized listings. And the proposed greater-sage-grouse designations would dwarf those in magnitude and likely economic harm. Besides the spotted-owl fiasco, how many easterners know of these existing and proposed government actions?

As Jennifer Rubin related, after many years directing the Heritage Foundation’s Legal Center and a brief stint as a corporate counsel, I am honored to join Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) as the executive director of its new D.C. Center. My new duties include educational efforts to highlight the above legal threats and what PLF and like-minded organizations are doing to rescue our liberty from coast to coast. An epiphany from my recent vacation shows how challenging that may be — and also why it is worth the effort.

The Challenge
Standing at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, if you have very good eyes or a telescopic lens, you can glimpse tiny-looking structures clustered on the South Rim that you are told constitute Grand Canyon Village, about twelve to 14 miles away as the California condor flies. Without more sophisticated equipment you can’t see the people or know what they are doing. If you stand on the South Rim, where the vast majority of tourists begin and end their visit, you can’t see even tiny structures on the North Rim, since that rim is almost 1,500 feet higher.

Few people who visit one side of the national park drive to the other, because it takes about 4.5 hours by car to cover the 213 miles of beautiful but circuitous road. And perhaps only a few hundred of the 5 million annual visitors to the park hike the 24 to 27 miles (depending on the trails you choose) from one rim to the other, a route that includes an elevation drop of one mile and the subsequent ascent of one mile.

The vast majority of visitors learn this about the other rim: It’s kind of like the rim they are standing on, except that it’s kind of different in some ways that may or may not be important, except for two species of squirrel (Albert’s vs. Kaibab) that live only on one side each.

Some South Rim visitors might read a sidebar in a tour book and learn that the higher elevation of the North Rim constitutes a different alpine environment, and that the North Rim lodge and roads are closed most of the year because of snow. (A tour book’s description might be more precise, but “alpine” and “different” are what most of us grasp.) I read such a description, but after sweating in shorts and a T-shirt on a sunny hike from the South Rim through the top several rock layers reflecting 50 million years of Earth’s history, I was still surprised to drive through snow and sleet a few days later on the North Rim in late May. My family cut short our sleety hike that day, but it cemented some of those “alpine” differences in our minds much more firmly than reading the tour book.

And what percent of visitors to the South Rim even read about those differences? We’re all busy, we don’t know if it’s worth our effort to find out more, and we’re naturally selective when we have so much else competing for our attention. Thus, many South Rim tourists will know nothing of those differences or will remain content with the limited knowledge that things are basically the same on the other side, except a little bit different.

And that’s what most easterners know about life in the real West: that it exists, that it is kind of like life in the East, except different in slightly romantic ways, including some big mountains — and that it is often dryer. That doesn’t begin to explain the land-use and water-rights struggles, or the environmental controls and related issues that profoundly affect farmers, ranchers, miners, and ordinary citizens in most of the West.

The Cliven Bundy family drama presented an unfortunate glimpse into some of those struggles, unfortunate because Bundy’s non-payment of his grazing fees and racist remarks distracted significantly from the problems that many more-sympathetic individuals face with unreasonable habitat restrictions, abusive state and federal dictates, illegal water-rights diversions, and outrageous takings and property exactions. The property-rights and environmental-law challenges presented on PLF’s website begin to tell part of the story. But it is understandably difficult to get most easterners to focus on the wrongful abrogation of water rights.


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