A tangled web of states’ rights, business interests and public health

Natural Law & Order

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

America watched in fascination last year as an armed, native-born, private militia occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Some were convicted and others were acquitted on charges that included conspiracy to obstruct federal officers, firearms violations, theft and depredation of federal property. One protester died trying to evade a federal blockade.

Among the concerns of the ranchers and others who holed up for over a month at the popular wildlife sanctuary was the idea that stewardship of public lands should be the purview of states, not the federal government, and that states should have the right to privatize and monetize the land: They called for the federal government to relinquish control of the refuge’s 1.4 million acres. 

Matters of ownership and public benefit are always complicated. Property owners in Pennsylvania, for instance, have banded together in an encampment called “The Stand” to protest the state’s use of eminent domain to bury natural gas pipelines under their property.

So, to recap: In Oregon, private citizens occupied public land to insist that it should be available for private uses such as mining, and in Pennsylvania, private property owners are essentially occupying their own land to keep state-approved fossil fuel interests out.

A “states’ rights” approach to federal oversight and regulation is often portrayed as a pro-business strategy, and it’s the war cry—genuine or not—driving the deep cuts proposed by the Trump administration to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

At stake is the right to clean air and water—to public safety—a matter on which the administration would like to have it both ways: Trump cites public safety as the reason for his retrograde “law and order” immigration policies, even though immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Meanwhile, 200,000 people die prematurely each year in the U.S. from air pollution.

But saying “pro-business” is so vague as to be unhelpful, since “business interests” depend on what business it is you’re talking about. 

In a recent New York Times Magazine article titled “Siege Has Ended, But Battle Over Public Lands Rages On” writer Kirk Johnson details how companies such as Patagonia, whose business interests include the American public having land (equipped with fresh air and clean water) available to them for outdoor recreation, don’t always favor state control that could more easily lead to privatization. According to the report, Patagonia and other aligned companies now have unlikely allies: conservative outdoorsmen who are also concerned about privatization and degradation of natural resources.

If you really want your head to spin, though, consider that President Trump’s own advisory council is split on whether to stay in the Paris climate accord, and—wait for it—former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, now our secretary of state, is one of those in favor of “keeping a seat at the table.” For the record, according to another Times article, ExxonMobil’s new chief is in favor of the holy grail of environmental policy fulcrums: a carbon tax. So are the heads of Royal Dutch Shell, Shell Canada, BP and Suncor.

If these headlines and articles in just one newspaper are any indication of what’s to come, environmental alliances will be shifting just as radically as other political alliances in this new age. 

As we sort out the purview and priorities of the federal government versus the states, if your business is making money from formerly public lands—or railroading natural gas pipelines through private backyards—you may have cause to celebrate. But if your business is breathing clean air or drinking clean water, you may be out of luck. 

In either case, when you look to the left and the right at your allies, the faces may surprise you.