When the neo-Nazi and his acolyte came to my high school, I dimly thought racism was just a history or geography lesson. I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana, a friendly college town cut through by great trout rivers and surrounded by mountainous national forests protected more than a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt. I was also a white teen in the middle of one of the whitest regions in the country. To introduce my class to ideas outside our pine-fresh bubble, our teacher invited as guest speakers the late Richard Butler, who founded the Aryan Nations in Northern Idaho, and his onetime associate John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana.
The men spoke on different days and they hammered on the threat public lands posed to white society. Our nation's more than 600 million acres of national parks, forests, grasslands, wildlife refuges, and Native American reservations held in trust by the federal government were, we heard, tools of the United Nations to keep whites from having a sanctuary… or something.
We also heard that the swastika had been unfairly maligned because to some people it signifies a blessing. What surprised me most though, was the bile that welled up in my guts at our sex ed lesson. People with different skin tones having babies, we heard, was like different species of animals being mated. The example I remember is the old trope about donkeys and horses, but to check my memory after 20 years I reached out to others in the class and heard it might have been pintail and mallard ducks. (Another detail I just learned: The father of my only Jewish classmate went out and got a gun for protection because of these men.)
What seemed an unnatural pairing — attacks on public lands and racism — went on display for all the country to see in the summer of 2014 when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy went on a racist rant in front of a New York Times reporter who visited his ranch and cantaloupe farm. Bundy had summoned a militia to brandish arms against employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who were trying to round up his illegal range cattle. The reporter had expected to hear Bundy's reasons for wanting the federal government to sell off or transfer to state control some of those 600 million open acres of public land. Bundy unexpectedly reminisced about his impressions on driving past public housing in Las Vegas. Out flew a barrage of bigotry about how blacks today might be better off still locked in chains and picking cotton.
If there's a worthy case against public lands, it ought to be made without a whiff of racism. Yet, at the beginning of 2016, there it came again. Two of Bundy's sons led another militia on a caravan to the edge of the Great Basin Desert in Oregon and seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, set aside for trumpeter swans in 1908 by Roosevelt (also near the spot where in 1897 cattle rancher Peter French was murdered for taking over lands that a court ruled were public). One of the Bundy brothers' ransom demands was the Bureau of Land Management dispose of thousands, perhaps millions, of acres of public lands.
This was at a time when the nation was watching the rise of another BLM — Black Lives Matter. In cities and towns from coast-to-coast hordes of BLM marchers took to the streets and shouted their rallying cry, "Hands up, don't shoot," drawing attention to the disproportionate amount of violence meted out by police against people with black and brown skin.
Twenty-four days into the Malheur standoff, militant LaVoy Finicum, 54, ran a roadblock in his white pickup and was shot by Oregon State Police. His supporters took to the downtown strip of tiny, windblown Burns, Oregon and also chanted "hands up, don't shoot." That right there, to use a phrase making the rounds right now, is some white appropriation.
The 13 males and one woman ages 12 to 44 mourned by BLM to that point had been unarmed (with the exception of 17-year-old Chicagoan LaQuan McDonald who reportedly had a three-inch knife, and was shot 16 times). Finicum was shot three times after he reached for the loaded nine-millimeter pistol strapped to his chest. Finicum's family and friends had every right to call his death a great loss and sorrow — he was by many accounts a hardworking father and foster father to dozens of children. But racial parity in martyrdom it ain't.
The national media seemed flummoxed by the racial messaging coming out of these anti-public lands events. There was the Washington Post simply noting the discordant spectacle of a mostly-white mob toting Black Lives Matter signs in Burns. There was Rolling Stone snarking at the start of the Bundy's trial this month about how one of their lawyers compared them to civil rights protesters. There was liberal writer Jonathan Chait reasoning in New York magazine of the elder Bundy, "it is 100 percent possible to agree with his views on grazing rights without being racist." And there was Sean Hannity of Fox News saying the story was only "proof that we have a government gone wild."
Lacking was any historical perspective on the movement against public lands, particularly with regard to race. But as attacks on public lands now grow more overt, organized, and well-funded, their history demands more scrutiny, and the racial slurs require a different lens. Because long before the late 1970s when the movement was dubbed the "Sagebrush Rebellion," its forbearers had already molded it out of anti-semitism, xenophobia, and abject racism.
The Bundy family attacking the Bureau of Land Management is ironic, because the agency was created in 1946 to be weak and rancher-friendly — the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," environmentalist Edward Abbey sneered. The withering of the agency was primarily the doing of one Nevada Senator. Decades before anyone was called a "Sagebrush Rebel," Patrick A. McCarran (D-Nev.) was known as the "Sagebrush Caesar."
The Sagebrush Caesar hated Communists, and he suspected anybody Jewish was probably a Communist. He also saw creeping Communism in attempts by federal conservation agencies to protect natural resources from private exploitation. In his head, this meant Jewish conspiracy.
"The threats to our form of government are more likely to come from unworthy agencies," he said in 1939. "The greatest enemies of our republic may not be foreign foes, but rather domestic termites." A few years later he talked publicly about a "Trojan Horse" in America and privately, specified it was filled with people of, "one blood, one race, one religion. You know what that is without me telling you."
Possessed of a cliff of white hair, a heavy chin, and V-shaped eyebrows, he took advantage of the world being distracted by WWII to slash away at conservation. Thirty percent of the West's biggest cattle barons grazed public land in Nevada, and he wanted them to rule the range. During the war he formed an alliance with Wyoming Senator Frank Barrett, who advanced legislation to sell off tens of millions of acres of national forests and national grasslands as well as to destroy Grand Teton National Park. McCarran railed that "the swivel-chair oligarchy" in Washington, D.C. had too much environmental protection power. When he cursed them behind closed doors, anti-Semitic slurs dribbled from his lips.
In 1940, the Sagebrush Caesar stumped alongside aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, just back from Berlin where he had medals pinned to his jacket by Hermann Goring. Their cause? Appeasing Hitler's Germany. The name of their campaign? "America First" — the original.
After the war, McCarran became convinced that Communist Jews bent on destroying America had snuck in as war refugees and United Nations diplomats in order to join forces with secret traitors already in high office. In the Senate he appointed himself leader of the "McCarran Committee" to root them out. Many were hounded by the committee's interrogations about potential Communist sympathies, and by extreme new probes regarding physical health and past associations, which McCarran forced Immigration and Naturalization Services to conduct. A man from the Ukraine sliced an artery in his leg and bled to death, a war orphan from Poland hanged himself, and Abraham H. Feller, a Jewish lawyer who helped found the United Nations, tore himself from the terrified grip of his wife and leapt out a 12-story window. "If Feller's conscience was clear he had no reason to suffer," McCarran said hours after the suicide, as he left on a luxurious South American cruise. President Harry Truman compared the McCarran Committee to "an inquisition."