Origins of the Oregon Takeover — Part 3: The Myth of the West (Audio Series)

On Jan. 2, 2016, a group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. They claim that the occupation is about protecting farmers and ranchers from the tyranny of the federal government, but some people accuse them of being radicals or even terrorists.

This series is an attempt to provide a better understanding of the situation by looking at some of the factors that led up to it.

–PREVIOUS CHAPTERS–

Part 1: The Bundy Ranch Standoff

Part 2: Ammon and the Strange Case of the Hammonds


Part 3: THE MYTH OF THE WEST

You can listen to this story in the media player above, or check out the full-text version below.

There’s a long history of bad blood between the federal government and ranchers in the West, but the relationship wasn’t always so contentious. In fact, the United States spent years trying to encourage farmers, ranchers and other pastoralists to move out West. 

In the 1840s, the United States acquired huge new swaths of land, including Texas and pretty much everything west of the Rocky Mountains.

us territory acquisition

Looking to encourage settlement in these newly-acquired territories, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. Under this new law, Americans could claim up to 160 acres of federal land simply by living on it for five years.1 If you were willing to pay a fee of $1.25 per acre, you could claim ownership after living on the land for just six months.

The goal of the program was to encourage poor American families to establish homesteads (small family farms) on the Western frontier. Unfortunately, most of the good land went to speculators and “land jobbers”: people who used legal loopholes to buy up massive plots of land at discounted prices. Once a land jobber had acquired all the best land in an area, they would turn around and sell it off in small chunks, charging people 10 or 20 times more than what they themselves had paid for it.1

But the Homestead Act had an even bigger Achilles’ heel: the arid climate of the American West. From archives.gov:

The authors of the Homestead Act imagined that settlers would find well-watered acreage that would provide the wood for fuel, fences, and the construction of homes, as in the East. Homesteads on the tall grass prairie of Minnesota, Iowa, eastern Nebraska and Kansas roughly met these expectations. But for those who settled further west, the land did not always offer readily available water and wood. 

To offset this problem, Congress passed new laws allowing people who settled west of the 100th meridian to acquire up to 1,120 acres of land. It was the first of many moves by the government to encourage, facilitate and subsidize the settlement of the American West, despite its harsh, unforgiving climate.

Comparing rainfall east and west of the 100th meridian

A map comparing rainfall east and west of the 100th meridian

“The US West is idealized as a place of independence, of boot straps pulling up and those kinds of things. But actually it was a huge federal project,” says Casper Bendixson, a PhD research scientist who studies cultural anthropology. “Treasure beyond treasure was poured into this effort to get states formed in the West.”

Bendixsen knows a thing or two about ranching culture in the West. The son of sharecroppers, he grew up on a modest farm and ranch in southeast Idaho before attending Montana State on a rodeo scholarship. After a brief stint in the pros, Bendixsen went back to school, earning his PhD from Rice University. His doctoral thesis examined the cultural values and ethics of US ranchers.

“The settling of the West was of two kinds: hydraulic and pastoral,” Bendixsen explains. There may not have been much water in the West, but nevertheless, the US government was determined to turn the frontier into an oasis for American settlers. And that meant exploiting every drop of water they could get their hands on. “Anything that they (the government) could do to control the waterways and the use of water in what was an arid place, and whatever they could do to get animals and plants growing, and productivity towards a national population, they were going to invest in,” Bendixson says.

By the time the 1900s rolled around, the vast majority of the free land in America had been claimed. But new advances like the hydraulic rotary drill2 — which allowed settlers to access aquifers buried deep underground — made water much easier to come by, even in the arid West. The free land may have been gone, but the availability of free water continued to perpetuate the myth of the West as a land of freedom and prosperity for farmers and ranchers.

In 1902, the government formed the Bureau of Reclamation to oversee water resource management, particularly in the arid West. Over the next 75 years, the agency would carry out hundreds of large-scale hydraulic projects, drastically altering the Western landscape as it tried to keep up with the growing demand for water. 

Historian Donald Worster documents this process in his 1992 book Under Western Skies. Here’s a particularly notable excerpt:

In 1976 the federal Bureau of Reclamation alone operated 320 water-storage reservoirs, 344 diversion dams, 14,400 miles of canals, 900 miles of pipelines, 205 miles of tunnels, 34,620 miles of laterals, 145 pumping plants, 50 power plants, and 16,240 circuit miles of transmission lines. That technology has remade completely the western river landscape. The Colorado has not reached the sea for twenty years, while the Columbia, the Snake, the Missouri, the Platte, the Brazos, and the Rio Grande, over much of their length, are descending staircases of man-made tanks.3

The Bureaus’s water projects were crucial to the settlement of the West, especially for big cities like Las Vegas (which was literally built in the middle of a desert).

The Las Vegas Strip in 1950 (left) vs. 2013

Comparing the Las Vegas Strip in 1950 and 2013

But public opinion on these massive reclamation projects started to shift in the second half of the 20th century as people became more aware of the consequences. “You begin to see a post-capitalist world emerge out of World War II,” says Bendixsen, “where anything for the sake of progress is questioned — progress has led us now to a nuclear weapon that can destroy us. So we’re starting to have highly self-reflective, self-critical thoughts about these large enterprises that we’ve engaged in.”

Armed with this new, more self-reflective mindset, American voters became increasingly concerned with the issue of conservation. Congress responded by passing a series of environmental laws during the 60s, culminating in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The Endangered Species Act was passed a few years later in 1973.

But there was one group that wasn’t so happy about all the new regulations: farmers and ranchers in the West. To them, the government’s new focus on environmentalism felt like a betrayal: after spending years encouraging pastoralists to settle in the West, the government was suddenly limiting their access to the land and resources that had been crucial to their way of life. “Any group that had been protected by the former governmentality or social regime was going to be threatened by default,” says Bendixsen.

As federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management increased their control over public lands in the West, more and more ranchers and farmers grew to distrust and, in many cases, resent the government. This resentment would soon be exploited by far-right antigovernment groups looking to spread their message to a wider audience.

Make sure to come back tomorrow for Part 4: “The Modern Antigovernment Militia Movement”!


Sources

1. How the West Was Settled (US National Archives)

2. Groundwater Management Practices (Google Books)

3. Wallace Stegner and the Western Environment: Hydraulics, Placelessness, and (Lack of) Identity (European Journal of American Studies)

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