Return Public Lands Back to its Communities

The combination of features, like petroglyphs, geoglyphs and trail networks, and the landscape's significance to the origin stories of several Native American tribes have led to multiple attempts to have the area, also known as the Great Bend of the Gila, declared a national monument. (“[From the Gila River to Bears Ears, a renewed push to protect public lands in the Southwest]”, The Arizona Republic)

This begs the question: Why not reintegrate these lands into the Native American reservations whose histories live on these rocks and boulders? Why rely on a bipolar political administration who can create and nullify national monuments as it pleases?

The expansion of federal protection over lands runs parallel to the disempowerment of local communities as they cede the ability to protect themselves and the land they live in and off of to distant, short-sighted land management agencies managed by politicians in Washington D.C. Bears Ears and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are a testament to the failure of ceding these powers to the federal government, where once protected lands are a political battleground between profit and “protection.”

It was a pillar of American democracy that federal powers were subordinated by state and local ordinances. As the 20th century passed, we have flipped the hierarchy on its head: Local communities are subjugated by state and federal agencies, sometimes at the cost of their health, well-being, and lives. Yet we feel an air of accomplishment when the federal government tries to “protect” public lands—a land that should have been managed, enjoyed, and protected by its local people in the first place.

On the conservative side, public lands are supposed to go the way of the Tragedy of the Commons: uninhibited, also known as exploited and exhausted. On the liberal side, public lands are supposed to be managed by the highest echelons of government so that it cannot be touched by corporations or the local communities who live off it. On both sides, the local community suffers as our two primary ideological factions seek to transfer public lands to those with the largest wallets or the most political power. The question one should ask: What does the community want from their land?

The phrase “public land” is a misnomer because it’ll only be public as long as it’s convenient for corporate and governmental interests, who are willing and directed to lock away and exploit public land when it feeds budgets and fulfills “conservation objectives”. The amount of hoops the public has to jump through to have a say over what goes on within public lands is astounding—the bureaucrats of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are not elected positions and have no responsibility to the public; they are guided by Congressional legislation, not people.

And we are trying to push for more and more public lands to be managed by such unattached, publicly-uncommitted agencies like the Forest Service and BLM? What kind of cognitive dissonance must one adopt to complain about the failures of federal public lands and then push to make it even more federally-controlled?

Local communities should be brainstorming how they can take back and manage the public lands they live in and off of so they aren’t part of an ideological pissing match between conservatives and liberals, who will designate national monuments and take it right back as easily as the wind blows. Right now, tree huggers and Q theorists from the likes of Michigan and Arkansas have an unearned say in the management of Arizona’s Native American histories and the grounds they are written upon, and it makes no sense. In the case of this, the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe should have a say, and no one else; we must give up our futile hope that the federal government can truly represent small minorities, and direct our hopes toward a future where local governance reigns supreme and communities can regain a direct say over what goes on in their physical surroundings.

P.S. I’ll be direct here: The federal and state governments are one of many actors seeking the dissolution of community. By representing no one in particular, these government bodies write legislation the erases the specificity of community cultures, and replaces it with a generic “national culture” that feels weightless compared to the tangibility of local cultures.

P.P.S. I’ll be direct again: I argue that public lands are simply lands under constant political pressure from two ideological groups. I seek to innovate on privatizing land: I want to “communitize” it. That is, I want to return public lands back to the people who live within and off of it, and let these communities decide for themselves what they should do with corporations, conservation, recreation, etc. Of course, this is a double-edged sword as some communities will decide to prioritize profit over well-being; if this is the case, can you blame the community when it has lived in a country that has always encouraged profit over personal and communal health?

Thus, if we witness the self-immolation of desperate communities and their land, we will immediately know that it is the national and global culture that needs to be fixed so that future communities will not see it fit to sacrifice themselves for corporate interests.