The Wild West myth and federal ownership of land

At the beginning of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the narrator says something that fits well when describing history – inversely, that is.

History became legend, legend became myth.

Most of the time, the opposite occurs simultaneously. Myth becomes legend, legend becomes history. Facts become myths and myths become facts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Hollywood version of the American West. The image is both vivid and iconic. The West was a chaotic region overrun by horse thieves, wild Indians, cattle rustlers, bank robbers. Then sheriffs and deputies and the government stepped in and put an end to all the violence.

The reality, as I’ve written on here, is that the Wild West was actually quite tame when compared to the violence in most American cities today. Dodge City, considered to be the most violent city in the West, had a record of five homicides – in a single year.

Another aspect of the legend is that the government was absentee or maintained a hands-off approach compared to development in the East. In reality, the opposite was true: On the East Coast, the federal government owns a minimal amount of property. In the West, however, huge tracts of land are considered public land, even though the public is not allowed to access it.

Ryan McMaken puts this history back into the myth category in his article “Ranchers and Empire in the American West“.

McMaken writes:

The image of the American West as a place of private property and blissful independence from government control has long been a myth, and the fact is that life in the West has involved the federal government much more so than life in the East much of the time. This is because the land and other natural resources in the West are controlled by a vast socialist bureaucracy governing water, land, and minerals going back to the late nineteenth century. Certainly, within the larger framework of federal control, heavily asserted by a central government bloated by the Civil War, there were many communities that did live extremely independently and in ways that might be considered anarchistic. However, since the 1890s, the overall economy of the American West is best viewed as one that has been dominated by federal land ownership, regulation, subsidies, and bureaucracy.

As the map in his article shows, huge tracts of land in states like my home state of Washington are owned by the federal government, and in states like Nevada, almost all the land is owned by the government.

A huge misconception with the idea of public land is the belief that this means the public has access to it. In truth, the more accurate term is “state-owned” or “government-owned” land. The government and the bureaucrats running the agencies in charge of the land decide who can and cannot access the property.

In short, individual citizens are taxed by the federal government to pay for land or land maintenance but are unable to enter it themselves without permission. Property owners do not need permission to walk on their property, which is why the term “state-owned” or “federally-owned” property is the more accurate term to use.

For a variety of reasons, there is simply no justification for the federal government to own land. The property should be sold to the highest bidder and allowed to be maintained by private property owners, who have more of an incentive to care for the property. Federally-owned land is also held at the expense of taxpayers, who are required to fund this ownership without their consent and are given no authority over its use or sale.

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