GIVE ME THAT OLD-TIME CONSTITUTION

THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND INDUSTRY OVER PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS HAS TAKEN ON A RELIGIOUS FERVOR

Both sides appealed the judge's ruling. The Platts wanted their other arguments upheld. The Attorney General's Office argued that the bill did not officially take effect until September 29. The judge held firm. "I think what the Legislature did is determine that these people do have property rights," Nelson told New Times.

The Platts cling passionately to the land they see as their birthright. Earl Platt is 84, as gnarled and weathered as the range where he runs his cattle; some of the land has been in his family since the 1870s. "I was born here," Platt says, "and I was ranching here since I was big enough to ride."

Nor is this the Platts' first legal battle over property rights; their efforts are merely the latest squabble in a long history of quarreling between ranchers and government of any sort. In the late 1800s, the federal government ruled that Western lands would remain in the public domain, which ranchers have seen ever since as a way for East Coast industrialists--and the congressional lobbies they manipulate--to keep control over Western resources.

"This is the same fight we've had since the Constitution was written," says C.B. "Doc" Lane of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.

Not surprisingly, the Platt case leads back to the Wise Use Movement. Jay Platt consulted with the current prophet of land rights, Wayne Hage. Hage is author of Storm Over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands, a paranoid chronicle of the debate over who should own the land.

His book has become a sort of how-to bible for bucking the system, and as Hage brags, "The Supreme Court ordered six copies, even though I was never handicapped with a law degree." Hage is enough of a barnyard lawyer to serve as director of the Free Enterprise Legal Fund, an offshoot of Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise; Hage's editor and publisher, of course, is Ron Arnold. Hage's Nevada ranch is currently embroiled in a takings battle with the U.S. Forest Service, and Mark Pollot, who wrote the Reagan executive order, is his lawyer. Jay Platt met Hage while the former was on a speaking tour in Arizona, read Hage's book and talks with him on the telephone for advice. And though he doesn't agree with everything Hage says, he found his book helpful. "I've met Ron Arnold, too," Platt notes. "He says it's all-out war, and you have to treat it as such. In that sense, I agree with him."

Platt also retained Wyoming takings attorney Karen Budd--who used to share the lecture circuit with Wayne Hage on behalf of the National Federal Lands Conference--to represent him in a takings claim against the Forest Service on leased grazing land in Utah. Because of drought, the Forest Service asked Platt to temporarily keep his cattle off certain plots. Platt argued that it was a taking, but by the time the case came to court, the Forest Service had already lifted the stay. He worries that soon Arizona state environmental regulations will dictate every detail of how he runs his ranch here--how I run my feedlot, where I dispose of manure--even on his private property. And it rubs raw.

@rule:
@body:Private property, says Wayne Hage, ". . . is the most important of all civil liberties, because without the ability to accumulate wealth, the private citizen has no way to protect himself from a totalitarian government." To his rancher's mind, somehow, environmentalism becomes an arm of that impending totalitarianism. "People are waking up to what the environmental movement is about," Hage rants. "It's nothing but a means to end all property rights. It has nothing to do with protecting air and forests. It's about control of the resource base--to concentrate it in the hands of certain international corporations and the big government that deals with big enterprises."

Their power and money, he feels, come from urbanites with bucolic escapist fantasies. "You look at the guy who lives in smog-filled Los Angeles surrounded by crime and he can't go outside, or the poor guy in New York who can't get a drink of water," he says. "You look at the poor guy in Detroit where the city is falling apart. They get a brochure from the Sierra Club saying, 'This beautiful area is going to be destroyed by some rapacious mining company or, worst of all, grazing.' How can he not send in his $15?"

There may be some truth to that vision. The environmental extremists would deny that the nation consumes the beef, needs the wood and paper and minerals that come from Western resources. And despite environmentalists' accusations that the land-use contracts extractive industries hold amount to industrial welfare checks, those industries are pushed to the wall economically. They see their oppressors as urbanites forcing regulations on businesses they don't understand. There is certainly irony in Eastern urbanites denouncing overgrazing in the name of environmentalism, when the closest they've been to a ranch is the cowboy boots and hats they wear as a fashion statement.

The extractive industries, however, refuse to admit that their operations constitute any environmental threat. And rather than adapt to changing times and diminishing resources, their response is to force legislation that says, "Let me do what I want or pay me not to."

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