The Constitution and its Publics: Ranchers, Rangeland, and Law in the American West

Authors: Robin Wright*, University of Minnesota - Minneapolis
Topics: Political Geography, Social Geography
Keywords: Legal geography, law, political geography,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 2:40 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Astor Ballroom III, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is the most recent flare-up in a long history of tensions between ranchers and federal land managers in the west, with opponents using their armed presence to prevent the seizure of trespassing cattle or the termination of a mining claim, while also regularly harassing federal land agency employees. Like the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the Wise Use movement of the 1990s, contemporary opponents pair the use or threat of violence with a dense set of constitutional claims. Using a strict textual interpretation of the U.S. constitution, state constitutions, and other founding documents, opponents argue that the federal ownership of public lands is unconstitutional and that the land should be turned over to state or private ownership. These claims sit uneasily alongside contemporary struggles for indigenous sovereignty and the historic use of law and frontier violence to secure the transfer of native lands to public and private ownership. My paper engages the growing online network of opponents to federal public lands to ask: how does conservative constitutional interpretation create publics, and how do those publics come together to affect politics, land policy, and law? Drawing on political ecology and legal studies, my paper explores how law shapes consciousness and structures social conceptions of public land, and private property, and constitutional rights in the U.S.


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