Government owned and subsidized lands in the American West have been a source of conflict among competing interest groups since the 19th century. Since the very beginning of white settlement, lands have been used by the federal government as part of a political scheme to subsidize and reward certain groups while punishing others.
The current standoff between ranchers and federal officials in Oregon is simply the latest chapter in a long contentious and sometimes bloody history of groups competing for control over government-owned lands in the West, and by ensuring that lands continue to be allocated by political means rather than through the market, government ownership of lands simply perpetuates conflict in the region.
The Origins of Government Ownership in the West
Why is it that so much land is controlled by the federal government in Western states in contrast to the rest of the county?
The troubles initially began with the Louisiana Purchase which established the federal government as the direct administrator of immense amounts of non-state land. However, the ideological justification for permanent federal ownership really began to gain influence by the late 19th century as many Americans, including influential economists of the time, began to adopt ideologies that saw centralized government as necessary for regulating the economy. We see these ideological leanings in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 which was initially created to regulate the railroads. Over time, the ICC became the inspiration for a host of other federal regulatory agencies that began to appear by the early 20th century.
As with the railroads, land in the west began to be seen as a "public resource" that required federal regulation as well.
But ideology was just one factor. The widespread nature of federal lands can also be attributed to mere administrative, historical, and geographic accidents that led to an expansion of federal land ownership well beyond what anyone had expected.
First of all was the fact of Indian settlement on Western lands. It may strike many as hard to believe, but the treatment of the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi was actually more restrained than it had been in Eastern states.
In earlier generations, for example, Indian settlements were completely destroyed with all the inhabitants killed or forcibly removed to locations west of the Mississippi. In other words, the tribes of the east were more completely decimated than were many tribes further West.
Much of this is due to the fact that whites populated the West more slowly and in smaller numbers than in, say, the Great Lakes area, but some of it is also due to the fact that the tribes often received better treatment from federal troops than they did from the ad hoc local militias they encountered in the Eastern states.
This is why Kit Carson saw his U.S. Army work in forcing Indians onto reservations as a "humanitarian" mission. Based on experiences in the east (and in early West Coast settlements), Carson surmised that the Indian tribes of the west would be completely destroyed if left to the "mercy" of locally based militias.
Over time — and contrary to past efforts of this sort — the removal of the tribes to reservations came to be dominated by the federal government. With this came what were effectively federally owned reservations. Legally, the reservations were sovereign lands guaranteed by the law of treaties. But the reality of US military domination meant the lands were really federal lands.
The Overrated Homestead Act
At the same time the federal government was moving the tribes onto reservations, it was attempting to encourage settlement by whites on those same lands. This was important to the federal government for military reasons. It was important to the federal government that whites with an allegiance to the US settle the lands instead of, say, Canadians or Mexicans, and it was important toward making sure that the Indians did not attempt to re-settle the land.
The Homestead program was also a clever welfare scheme that provided nearly-free land to new settlers who were paying nowhere near what the cost of acquiring the land had actually been. The taxpayers back East had already covered much of the immense cost of Indian removal and infrastructure construction. The new homesteaders paid but a small fraction of this cost. But from the federal government's perspective, it was worth it since the cheap land meant pro-American settlers were keeping others out.
The homestead act is often romanticized and praised by free-market types, but it should not be. The Homestead program was, ultimately, a federal land redistribution scheme, and it worked about as well as anyone skeptical of federal competence might expect. It also further expanded the role of the federal government.
Homesteading, as defined by federal law, worked relatively well in places like eastern Kansas or in the eastern Dakotas where it still rained enough to allow for crops without irrigation.
Further west — west of the 100th meridian — things were much drier, and the small acreage plots dictated by the Homestead Act made very little sense. Not surprisingly, Congress had written laws without bothering to check to see if they made any sense in light of geographic realities.
With so little water out west, and with fragile ecosystems that could not support anywhere near the agricultural population density that the Homestead Act envisioned, conflicts quickly arose over resources.