Guest Column: Public lands – a history of plunder and a responsibility to heal
Special to First Nation's Focus
RENO, Nev. — Public lands are held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of all, yet due to the laws that manage these lands, they often function as being held in trust for extractive corporations.
Laws such as the General Mining Act of 1872 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 promote the destruction of public lands to fill the pockets of corporations.
Today, we often view the function of public lands being conservation and recreation, but a brief review of the history tells a different story.
We must learn from this history, follow the lead of traditional stewards, and change laws to ensure the lands we call public benefit all inhabitants.
Commodifying the land
In Nevada, public lands are lands that were stolen from Washoe, Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone people.
Twenty-six million acres of Nevada land was never ceded by the Western Shoshone in the Treaty of Ruby Valley, and there are standing United Nations Human Rights recommendations to cease further mineral extraction on these lands.
The West was not contributing to Euro-American markets under the land management of Native communities, so a number of laws were passed that promoted the exploitation of the land.
The Homestead Act of 1862 urged easterners to move west and displace the Native stewards. It promoted ranching over traditional land uses and resulted in miles of barbed wire that fractured the ecosystems and the people.
The largely unchanged General Mining Act of 1872 lists mineral extraction as the highest use of public lands and allows the exploitation of minerals with zero federal royalties.
The prioritization of mining on public lands helps explain why there are an estimated 250,000 abandoned mines across Nevada. In spite of jobs that come and go, the law permits the exploitation of public land for the benefit of a few, often foreign, corporations.
Oil and gas
The only major change to the General Mining Act of 1872 was the creation of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which determines the leasing process for oil, gas, phosphates and coal on public lands.
It was passed following a period of low oil prices resulting from high production, and its purpose in part was to stabilize oil markets and protect industries.
Under this law, those applying for a lease must take action toward extraction to qualify; this is another example of public lands laws focused on promoting exploitation.
It is important to note that the Mineral Leasing Act gives the federal government the power to say no to oil/gas leases, unlike gold and other minerals under the General Mining Act of 1872.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto has recently taken action by writing the Ruby Mountain Protection Act, which would withdraw 450,000 acres of land around the Ruby Mountains from oil/gas leasing.
Cortez-Masto’s act would protect the Ruby Mountains, though there are currently oil/gas lease sales proposed for the Ely and Battle Mountain regions.
Nevadans, your federal representatives need to hear from you that these and other locations are also important to protect through a statewide fracking ban.
Despite glimmers of hope, little has really changed in how and for whom our representatives manage public lands.
Congressman Mark Amodei is well known for introducing legislation that gives away public lands to corporations. In an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal this August, Amodei talked about potentially giving away over land in Pershing County to Burning Man. These giveaways continue the centuries of racist public lands policy against Native Americans.
The Lovelock Tribe, which is located not far from the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man occurs, reside on a 15-acre reservation. This disparity between Native communities and corporate control of the land is more than a moral problem — Native stewards of the land have systems of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) that have been refined over thousands of years.
We have seen the benefits of applying TEK to land management already, one example being controlled burns for forest management. Non-Tribal communities must respect and follow the authority of traditional Native leaders whose knowledge of the land is our best hope to leave something for our children.
If we want public lands that function as healthy ecosystems and include people rather than overemphasizing corporate control, we must reform the 1872 General Mining Act and demand a ban on fracking, so that corporations don’t have an open door to exploit the land.
Ian P. Bigley is Mining Justice Organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN Action). Go to plannevada.org to learn more.