American natural resources are not white

When the New York Times recently ran a story about a white man in Wyoming running afoul of EPA regulations because he built a pond for his family and cattle to enjoy, I had a momentary flashback to June and the infamous “pool party” incident in McKinney, Texas.

In McKinney, a multiracial group of teens was terrorized by an aggressive policeman for the crime of swimming in a residential pool without permission. In rural Wyoming, Andy Johnson, white father of four, dammed a creek on his property to create a pond and is busy spinning a persecution narrative about the federal government oppressing him — although he has not been fined a penny since January 2014, when the EPA notified him of his violation.

There were protests over the treatment of the children in McKinney, although national media attention soon drifted elsewhere — eleven days later Donald Trump announced his presidential bid, an awful lot of which has been driven by fears about immigrants trashing our beautiful country (The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world).

I doubt we have heard the last from Andy Johnson of Fort Bridger. The white nationalist grievance machine needs a steady parade of martyrs, and these usually (like rancher Cliven Bundy) happen to be men who refuse to adhere to federal environmental laws because of “libertarian” principles. Baked into all of this is is assumption that white men’s access to land, water and air is more important than everyone else’s — an assumption that’s almost never questioned. The Times piece about Mr. Johnson does not mention that the creek he dammed is part of the Green River Basin, and that the water used to make his “oasis” is water taken away, ultimately, from the Colorado River. Johnson isn’t taking water in a vacuum; Johnson is taking water from the cities of Southern California.

Racial equality means not only that white and non-white citizens have the same abstract legal rights. It means that every citizen, regardless of color, should have access to the basic resources of life. The McKinney children were simply trying to enjoy playing in water, something it deeply saddens me to think is “controversial.” There is a vigorous tradition of communitarianism when it comes to air and water in American history. It started, possibly, with the first Puritan colonists of New England — “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities,” wrote John Winthrop — and continued through Progressive-era public utility reform all the way to the overdue restoration of Native American fishing rights in Midwestern lakes.

The absolutist property-rights view of air and water rights, such as Andy Johnson and very many conservatives of the last fifty years have espoused, stands in direct conflict with this noble communitarian impulse. In the world we actually inhabit, where landed property and other wealth so disproportionately belong to white people, it’s also a fundamentally racist proposition.

Skye Winspur
Skye Winspur is a 33 year old Wisconsinite who spends his days working with his hands and volunteering for causes he believe in. He writes on civil rights issues; gay history and culture; political campaigns of all kinds; Christian theology; and movies.

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  • TryN2 Farms

    I didn’t get to look at all the comments but am surprised by some of the information that is lacking. At the risk of triggering more inevitable disdain from this sites readers – I’m reminded of a statement from yrs ago about a famous feminist “who could turn a forest fire into a feminist issue”. This doesn’t have anything to do with race as far as I can see unless the only lense you see the world thru is one dominated by racial differences.
    Mr Johson DID get all the state permits he was required to. No one in that state process can document that they informed him to continue looking for other agencies to look to for approval -SINCE that event they ARE informing applicants that the fed EPA is NOW claiming jurisdiction. (Their own admission)
    Do you think Mr Johnson is stealing this water and beaming it to another world? The relatively few gallons of water this 1A pond is holding eventually still gets down to ALL the users at lower elevations. We have to remember the laws of physics – there is NO less water on the earth now than there was 1MM years ago. Water is not destroyed or ultimately consumed – it’s called a “water cycle” for a reason.
    The water in Johnsons pond is tested as 41 TIMES more “pure” than the water 100 miles downstream where the CWA last gave the EPA jurisdiction. The crux of the issue is how far UP from that river can regulations reach. AND in this case since he DID get the permission to delay water, to water his horses- cows and natural wildlife and is sending water downstream in a very pristine condition – why is the government wanting to levy a 187,000$ fine per day against him.
    Like many of the issues we wrestle with in our modern complex interconnected life together – there are MANY details that need to be included to have a sane helpful discussion. I’ve only touched on a few, It’s a shame that many of these don’t seem to find their way into the initial article or the comments I read.

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  • NMRon

    Wyoming is subject to western water law. Pretty much every drop, every year belongs to someone. By impounding the water the guy is stealing someone else’s property. I guess he adheres to the conservative mantra, ‘If I can see it, it’s mine.’

  • I live in an area of the country — New Mexico — where there is quite a lot of public land, both state and Federal. In many places, there has been house construction near the edges of these lands where as a condition of being allowed to build, the property owners are required by law to allow ‘right of access.’ (All this is not unlike the laws in California banning property owners from claiming ownership of ocean beaches or blocking public access to them.)

    Often for a long while, years or decades, there’s no problem. But eventually, inevitably, some new property owner buys a chunk of land and, despite the easements and rights-of-way being right there in the title, they will put up No Trespassing signs and sometimes even physical barriers to keep people from crossing land they have every right to cross.

    Whenever hiking, I’ve taken to carrying a copy of the parks maps, and sometimes even printouts of the relevant RoW covenants and laws. On the other hand, there seems to be an alarming number of people willing to use ‘Second Amendment solutions’ for their illegal squatting and land seizures.

    All I can figure is it’s an overweening sense of self-entitlement, greed, and selfishness, negative qualities which I’ve seen get worse in this country over the last generation.

  • Indigo

    The Hiawatha Belt (c. 1415 C.E.) teaches that “we all live in the same longhouse.”

  • 2karmanot

    Well done! The implications are legion, especially for Indian lands.

  • Bcre8ve

    I walk every day, with my dog running around freely, on what is a town-owned golf course that is no longer being used as such. It also has giant “No Trespassing” signs on either end. I have never been bothered by any authorities there, and the men who keep it mowed are all friendly to me, but one thing I recently noticed is that here are never any POC there, The one time I saw a family who were, I could tell that they were nervous about being there and my reaction to their child approaching me. We had a nice talk, and I told them what a great place it was for dogs and children to play, but even though I am there every single day I have never seen them again.

    I thought about it afterwards, and how even though signs don’t tend to deter me very much, using common sense about where I go instead, I’m guessing that this is certainly a sort of privilege/custom that other groups don’t enjoy. Even if I were confronted, I’m guessing they would just nicely ask me not to come back rather than search me and throw me to the ground for “resisting”. And shoot my dog, of course. I can’t imagine what it must be like to always having to fear that any sign, any rule, has the potential to turn you into a target for those with less than pure motives and end with you dead, halfway out of a jail cell, with guards walking over your dead body as if you don’t even exist.

    I’m guessing that to a black land owner in Johnson and Bundy’s neck of the woods, it would be just as unthinkable to dam up a stream for personal use or graze cattle on someone else’s land as it is for black suburban families to adventure past a “No Trespassing” sign. Because one thing they all have in common is the absolute certainty that there are two completely distinct and separate “justice” systems in this country. Not because they say it, but because they live it, all knowing that if you are white you can flaunt the rules. Everyone else must live by them.

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