Now that President Trump is in office, people here and in other parts of the 11 states where 47 percent of the landmass is publicly owned are watching to see what he will do on everything related to public lands, from coal mining and cattle grazing to national monuments and parks. In Burns, some ranchers and others are feeling emboldened, hopeful that regulatory rollbacks by the federal government will return lands to private use and shore up a long-struggling economy.The reason that these issues have been generating conflict for a century is that they are complex, with many people and interest groups on each side. Across the west many people feel in a vague way that the government owns too much land and sets too many limits on how it is used. But every particular proposal to actually put some block of federal land into state or private hands has been hugely controversial. Ranchers have long been in the forefront of these fights, but even many ranchers recognize that they benefit from federal ownership. If the land were put up for sale, two-bit ranchers like them would not be the likely buyers; instead it would be snapped up by oil company executives, or else tech or entertainment moguls from the west coast. Even if they could buy the land the tax bill might turn out to be more than they pay in grazing fees. More broadly, a desire to see the land taken out of federal hands cuts against another great western tradition, being able to go just about anywhere. Small town guys like Ray Anderson love being able to hop in their four-wheelers and just drive wherever there is a track or a chance of making one, and private ownership would bring that to a quick end.
But the change in administration has also spawned a countermovement of conservatives and corporate executives who are speaking up alongside environmentalists in defense of public lands and now worry about losing access to hunting grounds and customers who prize national parks and wildlife.
In Idaho, for example, a deal to put thousands of acres into private ownership — exactly the sort of transaction that the militia leader brothers, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, had espoused in seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — was met with fierce opposition, by no less than a group of conservative outdoorsmen.
The deal had been in the works for years and was backed by Republican elected officials, who said that adding new taxable private land would generate business activity and property tax revenue.
But the proposal, to the surprise of many people on both sides, hit a wall with people like Ray Anderson, a machine shop owner in the tiny community of Grangeville, Idaho, who raised money and helped a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts kill the plan and boot out of office a county commissioner and state senator who had supported it. Mr. Anderson said he feared that Idaho County, rural and in need of cash, would encourage private owners to develop the lands, or put up fences to keep out hunters and fishermen like him.
“I’m a businessman and I’m a conservative, but nothing about the plan seemed to make sense,” Mr. Anderson said. “Where I grew up I was told that public lands will be public lands forever.”
In Montana, access to public lands for recreation shaped last fall’s governor’s race, with the incumbent, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, staking out a position in defense of public lands and portraying his Republican opponent as captive to private interests that would put up gates and fences. Mr. Bullock won.
Like so many of the other issues we face, I cannot see how this will ever be solved, and I fully expect that these same fights about western land will still be raging long after I am gone.