Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Great Fire Sale of our National Heritage: Ted Cruz's Role in an Unconstitutional Land-Grab Scheme

 by Nomad

Did a top-dollar campaign donation from a pair of evangelical brothers have anything to do with Ted Cruz attempt to sneak in a historic land-grab? What do Bundy's and the Oregon occupiers have to do with the corporate takeover of public lands?

Back in July 2015, Republican candidate Ted Cruz's run for the White House was given a boost with a  contribution of $15 million, which was, at that point, the largest known donation to the 2016 presidential campaign. The donor of this campaign life-saver was a pair of billionaire brothers.
Surprisingly, the surname here is not Koch.
However, in many ways, the successful, blue-collar and religious Wilks brothers are a knockoff copy of the Koch brothers. The agenda is similar at the very least. Furthermore, both pairs of brothers have no problem working together if the prize is worth the taking. 

According to Forbes, they are called "undercover billionaires." Farris and Dan Wilks made their sizable fortunes through the fracking industry with the sale of their company Frac Tech to a group of investors led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund for $3.5 billion in May 2011. The Wall Street Journal provides some more info on the company.
Frac Tech employs hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to crack shale rocks for Exxon Mobil Corp., Chesapeake Energy Corp. and other big companies in their search for oil and natural gas.
At the time of the sale, Frac Tech reported 2010 profit of $368.7 million on $1.29 billion in revenue. The Wilks’ took in about $3.2 billion of the total $3.5 billion sale as reported by Forbes. The brothers reportedly owned 68% of the company so they are now wealthy -but not fabulously so, by Texas standards. Their estimated personal worth is $1.4 billion. Each. 
Or to put it another way, they are the small fry of the 1%, but they have more than enough green stuff to build a Christian empire with.

A year before the lucrative sale, a powerful House committee, led by Democrats and championed by environmental groups, had announced that it would investigate whether gas producers in areas such as North Texas have injected diesel fuel or other toxic fluids underground that could pose a threat to drinking water sources. 
The then- Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, whose agency regulates oil and gas drilling in the state (but paradoxically not railroads) dismissed the allegations of groundwater poisoning as “a fairy tale” and “geologically impossible.” 
Like climate change.

Nonetheless, with evidence of possible groundwater contamination coming to light, the debate was heating up so it was perhaps a good time, perhaps, for frackers to cut and run. It was perfect timing too. The collapse of oil prices has hit fracking companies hard, and at present, 97% of them are operating at a loss. 
So the Wilks brothers got lucky.  
CNN reported that the brothers used a portion of that windfall to shuffle "large contributions to the leading social conservative nonprofit groups that aren't required to reveal their donors." 

Thanks to the infamous SCOTUS Citizens United decision, it is not bribery, it's just free speech of the corporate kind. It's a type of political influence that whispers in the ears of politicians who are willing to auction off their souls to the highest bidder.

A Land of God and Opportunity

The Wilks see no harm in this kind of political investing in people like Cruz. They know, without a smidgen of doubt, they have God on their side. So, as far as the Wilks are concerned, it's money well spent.  
Farris Wilks, a 63-year-old pastor in the small town of Cisco, Texas told CNN:
"Our country was founded on the idea that our rights come from the Creator, not the government. I'm afraid we're losing that. Unless we elect a principled conservative leader ready to stand up for our values, we'll look back on what once was the land of opportunity and pass on a less prosperous nation to our children and grandchildren. That's why we need Ted Cruz."
Brother Farris agreed and has decided what America really needs. 
"...leader that will stand up for biblical morals… We need a leader who will make sure America doesn’t end up a socialist nation.”
Where they got the idea that Ted Cruz - who has been caught up repeatedly in lie after lie- is a principled conservative is anybody's guess. The only thing Cruz had made clear is the principle that he can be bought at a fair price and is willing to resort to any shady trick to get what he wants.

The Wilks donation supplied Ted Cruz with more money than any other Republican except Jeb Bush. CNN points out that is was "a surprising achievement for a firebrand senator more embraced at a Tea Party rally than at a black-tie business gala."

The Wilks brothers have a variety of radical far-right opinions that were once upon a time considered belonging to the crackpot fringe.
The majority of Americans do not share their opinions on, for example, bringing the Bible back into the taxpayer-funded public schools. In fact, they have said they think the Bible should be the only textbook in schools.

And most Americans would not be happy to implement other Wilks "solutions" on a national scale.
Farris also funds a network of “pregnancy centers” that refuse, on principle, to talk to single women about contraception. (Married women need to check with their husband and pastor.)
Sharia by way of Texas.

Promises to Keep

The brothers think that in Ted Cruz they have found their savior, and they are more than willing to fund his campaign. 
Last December, Cruz paid a visit to the Wilks ranch in Cisco to meet privately with close to 300 evangelical leaders. It was something more than a rally but slightly less than an anointing.
The meeting is being organized at least in part by Keep the Promise PAC, one of four main super PACs supporting Cruz. Keep the Promise PAC is headed by David Barton, an influential Christian activist and author who formerly served as the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
According to the small town adage, a good time was had by all. Tickets to the fundraiser were not exactly cheap, with tickets running from $500 to $2700. The rally was followed up with a concert by the Newsboys, a Christian Rock Band. (Albums include Hell Is for Wimps.)

If the name David Barton sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Barton once hung out with former Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and gave new Tea Party members of Congress seminars (at tax-payers' expense) on how religious the Founding Fathers were. 
Eventually, his brand of fictional history got him into trouble when his books, which made spurious claims about Thomas Jefferson's religious beliefs, were yanked off shelves.
The words historians used in reviewing the books were "factually untrue." Given that background, Barton is probably the perfect man to lead a Ted Cruz Super PAC.
Despite all that, Barton is an influential figure among the Christian Nation crowd.
*  *  *
When it came to the Wilks donation, the CNN article also adds this curiously incurious statement:
It is not yet clear how the brothers plan to spend their money in the Cruz super PAC, or whether any strings are attached to the $15 million contribution.
Perhaps, the only clue to that string riddle could be the name of the super PAC is Keep the Promise. We can assume many promises were made when between the Wilks and Cruz. 
What those promises might have been is unclear and there's no evidence of any actual wrong-doing. Such is the present state of American politics. 

The Land is My Land

Before we wade in any further, a little more information about the "doings" of the brothers Wilks, courtesy of American Prospect is in order.
The Wilks brothers have gone on a land-buying spree out West, amassing huge holdings in Montana, Idaho, Texas, Kansas, and Colorado. In December 2012, the Billings Gazette reported that they had amassed more than 276,000 acres in Montana, or more than 430 square miles; more recent reports say they own more than 301,300 acres in the state. Among their purchases was the historic 62,000-acre N Bar Ranch, which had been listed for $45 million.
To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, how much land does a man need? If your surname is Wilks, then the answer is a lot and a little more. Given all of the religiosity, you might even think that the Wilks are imitating Tolstoy's peasant, Pahom. who says:
"If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"
In this case, it's not about a heavenly paradise at all. It's actually about the earthly kind of paradise. 
The Wilks are supporting attempts by organizations backed the Koch brothers to open up for sale America’s national parks and other public lands.  
*   *   *
All in all, the conspiracy- and I am not using that word lightly- is an impressive bit of political engineering. A year ago, the Montana Standard reported how the scheme works.

According to an article, the plan appears to be a multi-step process: the first step is the introduction of legislation at a state level to drive out federal ownership of publicly protected lands- like national parks. 
The ownership of this land then would be transferred to the respective states. This would, in turn, make states like Montana responsible for management costs.
That's a financial burden they cannot clearly afford. 

At first glance, it seems insane. Why would states, which already have so many difficulties managing their state budgets, wish to entail more financial responsibility? 
Yet it does make perfect sense in the long game. 

Fire Sale of the Family Heirlooms

In Montana and all over the Western United States, American Lands Council (ALC), a Utah-based organization has been pushing a scheme it euphemistically calls “Transfer of Public Lands Act”— the piece of legislation that would force Americans to give up their lands to the states. 

The legislature of Utah, which has been gung-ho about the idea of selling off protected land, passed the first Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012. Legislators promptly demanded the feds hand over some 31 million acres "potentially opening them up to even more coal mining and oil and gas extraction." 

An analysis commissioned by the Legislature found that the state would incur huge expenses if it suddenly gained all that land.. Nonetheless, the Utah state Legislature has approved spending up to $2 million to prepare to sue the federal government.
The legislators are allocating millions of dollars in order to sue the federal government to acquire lands that they cannot afford to maintain.
Crazy or what? 

The Montana Standard reports that
The Transfer of Public Lands Act used to go by another name — the Sage Brush Rebellion Act. That bill was crafted by groups funded by the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil and the Wilks brothers.
The pieces of the puzzle falling into place? 

Pushing Free-Market Environmentalism

In July 2015, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Reed Watson, the executive director of the Koch-backed Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). According to SourceWatch,  PERC  is a think tank based in Bozeman, Montana that specializes in something they call free-market environmentalism.

In the piece, Watson (along with a research associate at the Center) called for the end of national parks, citing "the backlog in maintenance for existing parks." 
He points the expense of national parks to the federal government to the taxpayer and the necessity of a reduction in both number and scale of the parks. 

It's a common argument. Some say it is what austerity has always been about. The message is: we simply can't afford our protect our heritage. It's time to sell the family heirlooms. 
Critics say that it's not the first time that austerity has been used to justify the sale of public assets. 

An additional source notes that Watson had previously worked at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and in a 2009 op-ed criticized a number of bipartisan bills to protect wilderness, arguing that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.
While the authors seem to push for “true conservation” from the federal government, in reality, PERC has a long history of advocating for the privatization of America’s national parks and other public lands, and has significant ties to the Koch brothers and fossil fuel industries.
The Montana Standard points out that this privatization effort is spearheaded by the advocates of the Transfer of Public Land laws.
The common denominator here is that these bills create conditions that strip Americans of their own lands by making it too costly to manage them at the state level. The bills are handed off to state legislators, who introduce them as their own ideas.
Pretty clever, huh? 
The national park system was designed to keep the land opened to all Americans and to protect it as a national heritage to pass down to the next generation. 
All that is now under threat.  
Regardless of how you slice it, it’s still a scheme meant to grow the riches of profiteers, corporations and the wealthy who are ready to buy up and exploit Montana’s lands once the state acquires them, forcing the state to sell them off to remain financially solvent.
But, as we shall see, the plan operates at a higher legislative level too.

A Question for the SCOTUS?
You might be wondering how can this legislation be legal. That's a very good question. 
Probably it isn't. 
For the time being, the legitimacy of the Transfer of Public Lands laws hasn't been challenged in the courts. But it soon will be since similar laws are under consideration in a majority of western states.

In an article for the American Constitution Society, Raph Graybill, Fellow, Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS)writes:
A legal analysis of transfer demands begins with the Constitution itself, and the plain text of the Constitution speaks directly to transfer demand laws. The Property Clause, Article IV, § 3, cl. 2, states, “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” The text leaves little room for ambiguity over who may make decisions affecting United States land: Only Congress may initiate the sale or transfer of federal public lands.
That's a little dry, I know but to put it n other words, Western states that pass the law are going to have a very hard time claiming they actually had any authority over federal land. 
The Supreme Court has regularly upheld this plain text understanding of authority over American public lands. In its 1840 case, United States v. Gratiot, the Supreme Court held that “[t]he power over the public lands is vested in Congress by the Constitution, without limitation.” A hundred years later, the Court held the same in United States v. City & County of San Francisco: “Congress may constitutionally limit the disposition of the public domain to a manner consistent with its views of public policy.”
Ultimately it may have to be decided by the Supreme Court and at the moment, the high court is not in a position to decide when the Judges should have lunch.

Side note: It is ironic that Justice Scalia whose relations with the Koch brothers raised a lot of eyebrows) should die at the Texas ranch of John Poindexter, with a map at his bedside.
(Poindexter might look like a cowboy but the native Houstonian was a former Wall Street venture capitalist, Now he presides over a Houston manufacturing empire with multiple subsidiaries, reportedly taking in total annual revenues of close to $1 billion.)

Back in 2006, the shy Poindexter was the subject of an article in Texas Monthly. At the end of August of that year, the spotlight fell on Poindexter when it was revealed that he had been "in quiet negotiations throughout the summer with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to purchase 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park for around $2 million."

Austin American-Statesman broke the story just before the deal was to go through. The land deal was decried for its secrecy and “fire sale price.” The news caused such a stink with conservationists and ultimately, the commissioners rejected the Pondexter's offer.
The Texas Monthly article points out that the idea of selling off public lands was unthinkable to a lot of people:
For them, it’s shameful enough that public land accounts for just 7 percent of the state. Selling any significant portion will never be acceptable.
Obviously, these outraged people haven't a clue of the full scale of what's happening to the public lands throughout the West.

Scalia's death at the Poindexter's ranch could be more than just mere irony. One (admittedly bias) source noted that over the years, well-substantiated claims have been made against Scalia and his tendency to have questionable private meetings outside the courts. 
Scalia’s practice of slipping away from Washington, unannounced, all expenses paid, to socialize for days in private, intimate settings with selected people who have business either before or affected by the Supreme Court epitomizes how justice in the United States is dispensed.

The Second Sagebrush Rebellion

The Transfer of Public Lands Act was formerly named the Sagebrush Rebellion Act and that rings a bell. The name was changed to something far less evocative in order to cover the tracks, we might assume.

The colorfully-named Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s was a movement to take back federal lands, out of public protective custodianship and into the hands of private ownership. 

Supporters of this movement wanted more state and local control over these lands, if not an outright transfer of them to state and local authorities and/or privatization. It was characterized as a grassroots movement but the chief beneficiaries would always have been private corporation ready to seize the opportunity. 

When running for president, Ronald Reagan successfully used the movement to his own political benefit during the 1980 elections.
Ultimately, however, it all came to nothing and the rebellion petered out. (It is quite likely that candidate Cruz is attempting the same game Reagan played but now with higher stakes.)

The International Business Times provides some more background:
The idea that national land was part of our collective American heritage really took hold in the 20th century with the rise of the National Park Service. In fact, the notion of public land for all to enjoy -- foreign nearly the world over -- was called “America’s best idea,” and it remained so in most minds until the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 came along.
Under that law, The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, was authorized designate places many in the West used for herding, mining or even archeological studies as national wilderness areas.
Under this law, the  BLM also collects that money to offset costs of maintaining roads, water and the health of the fields the cows graze. It was a sort of compromise between the private interests, responsible cattle ranchers and sheep herders, and the public trust. 
For a fee, you can use the land so long as you respect it. It doesn't belong to you but to the whole nation and to the generations to come. 
What could be fairer than that?

But this fair system still didn't make some people happy. These people didn't understand the idea of sharing the land and they certainly didn't want to be forced by Washington to pay for the use of the land. 
They wanted it all for free. That's right, free stuff!

Cliven Bundy and Oregon Occupiers

This federal responsibility was recently challenged directly by one Cliven Bundy who was the public face of resistance to the federal control of public lands.

After refusing to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees owed to taxpayers, Bundy and his friends staged an armed standoff with federal officers who had come to arrest him. Bundy's defense was that he refused to recognize the authority of the federal government. Needless to say, the federal marshals were not overly impressed.
 In an interview he claimed:
“I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
In another more  self-incriminating statement to CNN he said:
“I’ll be damned if this is the property of the United States. They have no business here.”

There's such a thing as defiance and there's another thing called plain old stupidity. If you want to stay out of trouble, you ought to be able to distinguish between them.

The matter was resolved peacefully but the issue resurfaced again in Oregon when a band of armed militia members calling themselves patriots (including Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon) occupied a federal wildlife refuge building. It was supposed to have been a protest against national park overreach, but the spark failed to catch and it became a country-wide joke.

Even though they promised to stay forever, if necessary, it concluded much sooner than that. The 40-plus day fiasco resulted with one casualty who drew a gun on federal law enforcement. After their surrender to the authorities, all members were put under arrest, including Cliven Bundy. 
Joke as it was, the federal grand jury indictments against them are no laughing matter. The charges of felony conspiracy, among other things, could put them behind bars for a long time. 

Nevertheless, while it lasted, the mainstream media effectively sanctioned the anti-federalist movement and called it the Second Sagebrush Rebellion. Hopes were raised, egos were inflated.
They have provided an inordinate amount of air time to what were essentially armed outlaws who defied the federal law. Strangely, few in corporate media seemed to question whether glorifying "domestic terrorists" was really all that wise. 
The Washington Post called them "occupiers." The New York Times opted for "armed activists" and "militia men." And the Associated Press put the situation this way: "A family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and is asking militia members to join them."
If that Bundy-Sagebrush Rebellion-Koch connection is not convincing, there's more to consider.

ThinkProgress provides us with the missing links with the Bundy group. Emails sent by the American Lands Council (ALC) and Koch-backed group Federalism in Action (FIA) to their members strongly suggest that Koch-backed groups are expanding their "financial and organizational support for a coalition of anti-government activists and militants who are working to seize and sell America’s national forests, monuments, and other public lands."

According to one source:
Both the ALC and FIA are part of a dizzying array of shadowy groups that channel money from big-ticket conservative donors like the Kochs to anti-government terrorists like the Bundys.
The validity of this allegation is likely to be tested out at the trials of the Oregon occupiers' trial.
*   *   *
Ever since Republican Teddy Roosevelt and his merry band of conservationists pushed for the national park system, corporate land-grabbers have used a grassroots facade to find a way to destroy it. 
Back then like today, the rights of sheep-herders and cattle-ranchers served as a smokescreen. After all, how can you get any more American than a cowboy with a rifle and a craggy face? 

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wasn't fooled. He mentions who was actually behind the battle he faced when trying to protect the wilderness areas from exploitation:
"..the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration."
In 1913, Roosevelt pointed out that not everybody jumped for joy. In an added understatement Roosevelt wrote that the preservation of public land "created bitter opposition from private interests."
By the time that President Woodrow Wilson formally created the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, the battle was over and special interests had lost.

By all accounts, they don't mean to lose the battle a second time. This time around the special interests plan to roll back these century-old federal protections with every tool at their command.

Promises Kept

Let's now return to Republican candidate Cruz and the Wilks brothers' donation. CNN might have been in the dark about what the money bought but it may have been for payment for services already rendered.

About a year before the Wilks brothers delivered their massive campaign contribution, Senator Cruz had made a few minor (but fundamental) changes to a bipartisan bill, the Sportsman Act of 2014. It was a draft bill that was supposed to make public lands more accessible to sportsmen.

Under Cruz's changes, the amendment included a provision that would "force the federal government to sell off a significant portion of the country’s most prized lands in the West." 

ThinkProgress points out:
The amendment would prohibit the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of any land within one state, and requires the government to transfer the excess land to the states or sell it to the highest bidder.
By Ted Cruz's revisions, the federal authorities would be forced to auction off public lands to the highest bidder. States- already cash-strapped- could hardly compete with corporations in that bidding.

The Ongoing Subversion of Congress

So, if the conspiracy theory is correct, the scheme is now operating at two levels, the state level, and the congressional level, thanks to the assistance of Republican candidate Ted Cruz. (Hopefully, it will all come out with the trial of Cliven Bundy and his lawless band. But don't hold your breath.)

One source pointed out that Cruz is certainly not alone. Fifteen incumbent members of Congress have agreed with Bundy that America’s public lands should be seized by the states or sold off for drilling, mining, or logging. 
Imagine the irony of members of Congress- siding with a band of outlaws who refuse to recognize the federal government's authority.

An article from the Center for American Progress points out how deep this conspiracy actually goes.
A growing fringe of right-wing politicians share Bundy’s belief that the U.S. government has no legitimate authority over federal lands and that those lands should be either seized by the states or sold off to the highest bidder.

Members of this right-wing movement... are bound by shared support for at least one of three radical ideas—each of which Bundy propagated during his “range war” against the federal government:
  • U.S. taxpayer-owned land should be sold or seized.
  • The federal government has no valid authority over federal lands in states, and county sheriffs are the only rightful law enforcement authority.
  • Citizens should challenge federal policies by defying the law on federal lands.
In one particular way, it is easier for the average citizen to engage in anti-government protests than elected members of Congress. 
Because, as a part of their swearing in, members of Congress have pledged allegiance - irrevocably- to the Constitution. Declaring war against the government and its authority is clearly a violation of that oath.
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Here is the list of the 15 members of Congress who support the state seizure/ sell-off of federal land.

Having subverted first state government, and then  members of Congress, the robber barons have apparently chosen candidate Cruz to put the power of the executive branch under absolute corporate control. 

If elected, the national treasure- its national park system- would very likely come under the hammer. After that,  pristine areas that once belonged to everybody will become only a fairy tale to tell the future generations.

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