On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Keeping Lands Green by Keeping Them Ours: Gerry Rising on Federal-to-State Land Transfers (May 24, 2015)

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We often think of territorial issues as occurring merely between national states and those entities who would join that group. National states, for example, often fight over disputed land areas (such as, as I have written about here, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands controversy), and there can even be tensions about states creating new lands, such as recent US-China tensions (see this Reuters article)  about land reclamation in the South China sea demonstrate. And, of course, the national territorial desires of would-be sovereign states are very well known just about everywhere, in our territorially unstable political globe—whether it be in the numerous Native American would-be nations within the United States, a restless Scotland yearning to be free, a Palestinian state seeking to shore up its independent status, or transnational Kurdish communities dreaming of establishing a stable Kurdistan.

Territorial issues, however, are also intra-national—and the workings of the system of jurisdictions within any state often has intense material consequences. As Gerry Rising makes clear in his excellent Buffalo News article, Don’t Transfer Land to Individual States,  land management is one key area where such decisions can have great material significance.

After summarizing federal practices of surveying and managing land in the US, Rising refers to efforts, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, to transfer control of lands out of federal control. As Rising notes, this “wise use” movement was really about privatization—namely, a movement governed by the “extraction industries: lumbering and mining.”  Recent efforts to transfer lands from the federal to the state level (where it could, of course, then be transferred into private hands or local controls) should be seen as an “outgrowth” of this privatization movement. Chillingly, Rising points out, those seeking to gain control of federally lands under the aegis of more efficient management styles are often those who have exerted efforts to ravage the budgets of the federal agencies that administer these lands: this is, of course, the starve-the-beast style of right-wing anti-federal political forces that have been so active in the United States since the Reagan era (a movement that, as I’ve written about here, has its parallel in post-Thatcher Britain, and which has recently reared its ugly head).

These issues are all about territory—about who controls land—and the stakes, Rising makes clear, are high. Our nation is a fascinating entity in that it is built on a harmonizing of tensions between the federal government and the states. The 10th Amendment of our Constitution is in part designed to maintain that balance—but it often appears that state efforts to maintain rights end up amounting to little more than privatizing as much space as possible. And some states have taken anti-federalist sentiments to absurd levels, calling into question the very hierarchy of jurisdictions that seems to me to be an essential part of the delicate balance key to the US, as the recent uproar about the Jade Helm military exercises and Texas’s reaction have shown: Texas, here, seems to be acting like its own state. Considering how virulently anti-regulation anti-federalist forces are, we need not even go into the specifics of their resistance to environmental policies—such efforts to privatize spaces are little more than an effort to allow a free-for-all appropriation of public land (a trend that Naomi Klein explores so powerfully in her study of the abusive appropriation of public lands and spaces in The Shock Doctrinea trend that, as I discussed here, can be seen in resistance to wealthy landowners seeking to unlawfully claim local access to beach spaces in California.).

Rising’s poignant opinion piece reminded me how vital territorial divisions are for thinking through environmental policies—and how much we need to pay attention to the fine points of who is appealing to lay claim to what, Rising insists, is only really ours while it remains federal—for once it moves to states, it falls irrevocably into the atomized world of mine, mine, mine.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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