An abundance of public land, but a scarcity of compromise

Written by Jayson Jacoby April 01, 2011 11:34 am

Scrolling through the comments posted on OregonLive.com, with the goal of sampling reasonable, respectful opinions about a complex issue — cattle grazing on public land, for instance — is akin to letting a mob of 3-year-olds decide the dinner menu and expecting a nutritious meal.

You’re going to get lots of candy and ice cream.

But very little in the way of leafy green vegetables.

I don’t mean to pick on OregonLive for its lack of wholesome fare.

A similar unhealthy miasma pervades pretty much every online forum — including the Baker City Herald’s, on occasion.

The cloak of anonymity we can don when we engage in cyber debate seems to temporarily disable the filters that temper our responses when we’re talking with a person rather than typing on a keyboard.

(You’re not likely to suffer a sharp uppercut from your keyboard, for one thing.)

I’m not suggesting that this triumph of derision over civility is a scandal that demands action, by the way.

Although it seems to me a cowardly act to lambaste strangers from the intellectual safety (and, potentially, physical safety) of a newspaper’s online comments page, I still want to read as many opinions as I can find regarding topics that interest me.

And anonymity, though it obviously degrades the tone of our discourse, has one benefit: it encourages honesty.

With no fear of reprisals (including uppercuts), people are likely to express themselves as clearly, or least as completely, as they are able.

Which brings me back round to my analogy about those tots and their meal choices.

Little kids aren’t capable of sober evaluation or thoughtful consideration, and we don’t expect them to be.

That’s why we make them eat their carrots before they can have a cookie.

But my standards for adults are significantly higher.

I’d like to think that those who chose to post online comments about a judge’s recent decision to prevent cattle from grazing on some national forest land in Grant County could muster something more useful than the written version of sticking their tongue out.

(That decision, by the way, was later amended so that the ranchers can move their cattle onto the disputed allotments this summer.)

Consider these excerpts from OregonLive:

One person, responding to a comment from a purported rancher who claimed his family has owned land in Eastern Oregon for 150 years, described the rancher as a “sixth-generation, freeloading, lawbreaking thief.”

Others brand ranchers as “welfare cowboys” who are “whining” because their “corporate welfare has been cut off.”

At the opposite end of the insult spectrum, posters refer to “pathetic enviros” and “fat butted pornland people” and “Western Oregon idiot liberals” who “stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Interesting reading.

Even entertaining, if you’re partial to crude puns and absurd generalizations.

But conspicuously lacking amid the vitriol is a coherent discussion about the vital topic of how we manage public land.

I say vital because each of us has a stake in this matter.

We are in fact entitled to our stake, because public land belongs to all of us, to the pathetic enviros and to the whining ranchers.

Although we often celebrate our abundance of public land — half of Baker County’s 2 million acres, for instance — the results of this largesse are frequently, and unavoidably, messy.

Imagine if you opened your backyard to everyone in America.

In no time you’d have a couple of cows munching the lawn, an L.L. Bean preferred customer flycasting for the goldfish in your pond, and a guy with a chain saw sizing up your shade trees.

All while you’re trying to take a nap in your hammock.

Fortunately the average national forest is rather larger than most backyards.

And with more fish, grass and trees.

Although the notion that we ought to use the sprawling public domain for a laundry list of purposes — the multiple use concept — has lost quite a lot of its luster over the decades, I think the idea remains a noble one.

It seems to me, though, that many people either have forgotten, or else they never understood, that multiple use is perhaps the ultimate example of compromise.

Convincing a few hundred politicians to agree on the language in a bill is no great feat compared with ensuring that a forest not only affords us a fine place to have a picnic, but also helps to supply the burgers we grill.

Sometimes we put the picnic hamper on a cow pie, to put the matter in more bluntly organic terms.

Based on the comments I’ve read on OregonLive related to the Grant County grazing conflict, though, I fear that many of us refuse to acknowledge that real compromise requires that we accept things we don’t like.

(Cow pies being less popular, for instance, than picnics.)

“Why should I compromise when I’m right and the other guy is wrong?” seems instead to be the prevailing sentiment.

Which is fine when the question at hand can be answered, beyond any doubt, with a yes or no answer.

If I’m standing in a blizzard there’s no reason I ought to compromise with some contrarian who insists it’s just a passing flurry.

But managing hundreds of millions of acres, on behalf of hundreds of millions of people, some of whom like burgers and some of whom prefer steelhead, can hardly be distilled to such a simplistic equation as right versus wrong.

We’ve not always done well by our public lands, of course.

We used to cut too many trees and we didn’t plant enough to replace the ones we took.

We grazed more livestock than the land, in some places, could sustain.

But we’ve also learned a great deal from those mistakes, and from a host of others we’ve made since we started making them more than a century ago.

It is a testament to our willingness to change, I believe, that our public lands continue, by and large, to give us the many and disparate things we want from them.

Which isn’t to say we can’t improve.

The “pathetic enviros” aren’t always satisfied with the agencies that oversee our land, so there are lawsuits.

The “whining ranchers” who graze their cattle on public land fear the lawsuits will drive them out of business.

Generally, the resolution in such cases is, like multiple use itself, a compromise.

Cattle continue to graze on public land, but fences are built, or fewer animals are allowed, or the grazing season is curtailed.

I understand that many people, when confronted with such a settlement of grievances, taste only the bitter flavor of defeat, are unable to detect the sweetness of their partial victory.

I pity such people, as I pity those who lack taste buds, or the ability to distinguish the blue of the sky from the orange of a mature ponderosa’s bark.

I don’t mean to imply that I’m never cynical, or always sanguine about what happens on public land.

I have, after accidentally stepping on an especially fresh patty, cursed cattle.

I’m equally offended (if less soiled) by people who insist that only those uses, and users, which pass their personal litmus test should be allowed.

And frankly, I’m sick of seeing hikers swinging those trekking poles.

Yet millions of hikers disagree. And who am I to tell them they must leave the sticks home, to insist that my annoyance at the clacking of their pole tips on trailside granite trumps their desire to avoid a nasty fall on a steep switchback?

The bottom line for me is that our public domain, despite the flaws inherent in the way we manage it, is a treasure, more valuable than any jewel.

I’m so grateful to have these vast lands close by and forever accessible (except for the occasional snowdrift or mudhole) that it would seem incredibly selfish to complain about having to share them with anybody.

Including “idiot liberals” and “whining ranchers.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.