Yours, Mine, or Ours? The Centuries-Old Debate over Public Lands

I grew up in Humboldt County, California. It’s known for a lot of things, but mostly for marijuana, great coffee, and gorgeous landscapes like this:

Rockefeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Wikimedia Commons










Sadly, Humboldt County is also known for sometimes violent battles that pit economic development and conservation against each other. So I grew up thinking of forests, oceans, and lakes as contested spaces, places of both sublime beauty and imminent threat.

I now live in Oregon, one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse states in the US.


By Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
oregon coast
The Oregon coastline looking south from Ecola State Park, with Haystack Rock in the distance by Cacophony (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Oregon welcome sign at Hells Canyon by Staplegunther at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, from Wikimedia Commons









Given that I spent my youth learning that open land meant open conflict, I’ve been increasingly nervous about local land-use skirmishes. For example, last summer, a dispute over a mining claim at the Sugar Pine Mine, just a half an hour from my home, almost spiraled out of control as a call went out to militia and “patriot” groups to take up arms against the Bureau of Land Management.

The whole thing fizzled, but I was still on tenterhooks.

Then a bunch of gun-toting, skewed-Constitution wielding, cowboy-wannabe militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Schools closed. Offices closed. Residents were intimidated. Federal employees were harrassed and had personal information like social-security numbers and credit-card numbers stolen–in some cases they even had to relocate. As these stories emerged, I realized how close my own community had come to living out that nightmare.

So I was already thinking about these issues when I read this article in The Guardian about urban public and private spaces in London and elsewhere, and about this protest to end the privatization of public spaces.

The two situations are entirely different for a number of reasons, of course, not least of which is that England has a long and embattled history over enclosure, the closing off of common lands and restriction of their use to one or more landowners. In early modern England, enclosure was used to create deer parks and to convert arable land to the more-profitable pasture for sheep and cattle. Eventually, conflict over  enclosure led to violent riots.*

While anti-enclosure acts were passed in 1489 and 1516, the practice continued and the situation grew worse as England’s population increased. Those who farmed grew increasingly resentful of those who tended herds and flocks. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclosure riots pitted tenants against gentry. In part galvanized by debates over enclosure, a new political movement emerged that espoused ideals of liberty and commonality: the Levellers (named after those who tore down, or “leveled,” hedges during enclosure riots).

Admittedly, I haven’t done much research on the Levellers, but graduate school friends had, and I was used to thinking of them as (problematic) foot soldiers in the long march towards equality and democracy (yes, I know that’s a progressivist view of history, but there it is). In other words, I was taught that I should admire the Levellers for their egalitarianism and proto-democratic ideals.

With the comparison of any two historical events one is tempted to draw parallels, and a cringe-y part of me wondered if the Bundy militia members who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge had ideological roots in the radical movements of 17th-century England (especially since the Bundy militia declared that the only legitimate basis of American civil rights was the Magna Carta, a claim the Levellers also made). I wondered: with their claims of taking land back “for the people,” were the Bundy militia the philosophical descendents of the Levellers?

There are similarities: both the riots over early modern enclosure and the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge were violent. Both had their roots in questions of power and authority over land. Both situations were influenced by changing population patterns and socio-economic realities.

But there is one critical difference: the land the Bundy militia attempted to take over is ALREADY public land, owned by the American people. It has been enclosed, in a sense, but access and usage are managed in such a way to balance agriculture, conservation, and recreation.

In fact, while they purported to be returning the land “to the people,” the only concrete idea the Bundy militia espoused was one they recycled from the standoff at Bundy ranch in Nevada: allowing ranchers free access to the refuge (and, indeed, to all federal lands in the West). In essence, they wanted to re-privatize the land, to close it off to all but grazing. In that sense, they are more related to the landowners of early modern England, those who would take the lands out of public usage.

After a long and tense standoff with the FBI, the Bundy militia have now been cleared out of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of their members is dead, many others under arrest. They destroyed habitat, desecrated Native artifacts, and dug latrines near sacred ground. They left behind trash, firearms and explosives, and even human feces. And chaos. They left behind them utter chaos.

No, the Bundy militia weren’t part of some egalitarian effort to free the land for the people. They were selfish, deluded egomaniacs intent on misreading the Constitution for their own personal gain.



*more info about later conflicts surrounding enclosure can be found here: The Enclosure Movement in England and Wales, R. Oliver

**These complex and heated debates over who owns the land—the federal government or the state—that have impacted me and my community in very immediate ways. The federal government ended payments meant to reimburse timber-dependent counties for loss of revenue, and now—because the voters in my county tend to be very anti-tax and voted down a library district—my local library closed for 18 months and is now only open thanks to donors and grantors. And public safety in our community is practically nil–if you live outside of the county seat, you have a handful of law enforcement officers available to return your call, and then only between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00 Monday-Friday. Our public safety system is like a car spinning wildly out of control…and about to go off a cliff in July when federal payments end.

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