Pombo’s frontier fantasy
December 9, 2005
U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., architect of the proposed sell-off of millions acres of public land, longs for a return to the old frontier. But Pombo needs a refresher in American history, and he should start with Frederick Jackson Turner.In 1893, Turner described a phenomenon that profoundly influenced the American psyche: the end of the frontier. He got his information from the census for 1890, which stated that “the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”For the first time in the history of this nation, westward expansion had come to an end, wrote Turner, “and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” The frontier as a perceived cornucopia of infinite bounds was closed, but not the American psyche. According to Turner, the frontier created our character.”That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil; and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are traits of the frontier.”In Peck’s “New Guide to the West,” published in 1837, the author described the waves of evolution that defined the American character. First came the pioneers, itinerant adventurers who opened the trails and lived off the land. The second wave brought emigrants who fashioned homesteads, churches, schools and a civil society. The third wave brought “men of capital and enterprise,” builders of towns, cities and industries.Each wave created a distinctly new variation on the American theme, which reinvented itself on each new demarcation of the frontier line as it moved west. “Thus,” Turner wrote, “the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.” This departure from the “bondage of the past” not only flavored American governance; it deeply influenced the individual.”The frontier is productive of individualism,” Turner observed. “Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization, based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control.”That antipathy become ingrained in much of the West, even though it belies a basic tenet of our democratic principles, in which the surrender of certain individual rights is paramount to the success of federalism.The American character still draws raw, individual strength from the frontier experience, but the American intellect denies the end of Turner’s “first period of American history.” Many Americans still believe that geographical opportunities are boundless and that the individual stands above the public good.Pombo is of this persuasion. That’s why he is eager to sell off vast acreage of public lands under the antiquated Mining Law of 1872 for $1,000 an acre. To Pombo, the frontier never ended; it is only inhibited by public ownership of the American commons, which he is determined to privatize.Even Herbert Hoover, the “rugged individualist,” warned against such a scheme when he outlined in 1928 the role of the federal government in the dispersal of national resources: “It does not mean that our government is to part with one iota of its national resources without complete protection to the public interest.” Today, that interest is far different than it was at the close of the frontier. Instead of reckless, expansionist dreams, we must explore new frontiers in energy independence, land conservation, managed growth, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture, and consumer self-restraint. The independence, security, freedom and autonomy of our communities depend on it.Pombo’s measure and the creed of individualism it represents must shift to responsible membership within a larger human and biological community. As a people we must rely, not on the frontier vision of boundless resources, but on the frontier mindset of practicality and ingenuity.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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