The Two BLMs: What a Government Agency and Political Movement Have in Common
The following essay was written for my nature/environment column on the Unitarian Universalist World website (https://www.uuworld.org/authors/jeffreylockwood). However, the editors decided that the content was too politically sensitive, that even the most liberal of religions was too politically polarized, and that too many readers would engage the work uncharitably and be offended. Censorship? Not really (I respect the editors’ judgment). But a heartbreaking state of affairs in which well-intentioned people cannot enter into civil conversation about some of the most pressing social issues of our times? So it seems, but you should decide for yourself.
Here’s how you know if you’re from the West. When you see “BLM” on a sign, do you think of Black Lives Matter (if so, you’re probably not from one of the flyover states) or Bureau of Land Management (if so, you likely live in a big, rectangular state). I admit to the latter.
As a middle-aged, white guy having lived in Wyoming for three decades and trying to make connections beyond my own experience, I’ve puzzled over this these acronyms. How might a fellow from one of the least racially diverse states in the nation with one of the largest amounts of public land, try to understand the tumult of racial (in)justice? Perhaps this question suggests an element of courage or foolhardiness in these politically fraught times, when misunderstanding is pervasive. Or maybe this is exactly the moment for trying.
My struggle is grounded in wanting to genuinely, if incompletely, fathom black lives while living in a place—if not leading a life—that is socially devalued. What I’m offering is one man’s effort to use what he knows about his homeland to grasp unfamiliar social settings. As the famed poet-activist C. Day-Lewis said, “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” And so what follows is an essay, both as verb and as noun.
I’m offering is metaphor. I’m not equating Wyoming’s ecosystems with my fellow human beings. Just as when I compare my UU Fellowship to a garden, I’m not suggesting that members are kale or carrots—rather, they share the imaginative qualities of needing care, providing sustenance, and sharing resources. And so, what about the rural and urban BLMs?
The original BLM was formed in 1946. Housed in the US Department of the Interior, the Bureau was tasked with managing “land nobody wanted”—enormous tracts of the West that homesteaders had passed by in their pursuit of fertile soil. Also in 1946, Harry S. Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights which might be taken to mean that America believed black lives mattered—except. Except that was the year of a horrific, quadruple lynching of two young, African-American couples in Georgia.
Today, ten percent of land in the United States is overseen by the BLM and twelve percent of the people in the country are black. Almost one-third of Wyoming is BLM land (an area nearly three times the size of Maryland) and almost one-third of Maryland is black (a population three times that of Wyoming). To extend the comparison, drivers crossing Wyoming on Interstate-80 pass through the Red Desert—a vast expanse of BLM land—as quickly as possible, hoping the car will not breakdown. And I imagine that anxious travelers might hurry past Monument Street or Fairfield neighborhoods of Baltimore.
I know that desolate habitats and public housing are viewed as threatening places by many people. Of course this mischaracterizes the lives of grey-green sagebrush and African-Americans. Nonetheless, the common perception is that Western steppes and inner cities are not lands filled with estimable lives. From where I stand, the two BLMs appear to be devoted to what society judges to be wastelands and wastelives.
I have a dear friend, one of the few women in the field of range management, who is a fierce, impassioned defender of shrubs, particularly sagebrush. Ann understands these plants. She cares deeply about, and finds beauty in, the communities they foster. I can imagine her starting a third BLM—Brush Lands Matter. What would this mean? Well, it would get us to think about plants lacking the cultural esteem of whispering grasses or towering trees and to recognize that shrubs are important. It would not mean that prairies and forests are insignificant. I imagine some people arguing, “All lands matter!” And they do. But we already have prairie preserves and redwood groves. Sort of like how we already value white kids and families. That’s how I make sense of the assertion that marginalized places and people matter.
The worth of land is typically expressed in utilitarian terms: What is it good for? Or, to be more precise, what can we extract? The lands overseen by BLM are not arable, no farmer could turn the soil and produce a crop. I sense a similar judgment being applied to black lives. What economic worth can be extracted from their neighborhoods? But these are the wrong questions about lands and people.
Ancient sagebrush and youthful blacks matter. Period. They are valuable without being commodified. The shrubby steppes epitomize the virtues of having struggled and triumphed against adversity—as with black lives. Both the lands and people have the capacity to persevere and flourish on their own terms. Sure, we might infuse young lives with skills that would fuel economic growth—and we could spread fertilizer on venerable rangeland in the name of “habitat improvement”. But such interventions merely add instrumental value to something that already has abiding, intrinsic worth.
From my perspective, we’ve done terrible damage to lands and people of concern to the two BLMs. In an ecological context, laws require those who exploit the “land nobody wanted”—those who profit from extracting oil, gas, coal, uranium, and forage—to reclaim places they’ve damaged. What about the other BLM’s concern? I’m incredulous that we can’t even form a government commission to simply study what it would mean to repair the harm done to exploited people.
Sagebrush restoration, black reparations—maybe these moral duties have more in common than a Wyoming community ecologist or a Baltimore community organizer might imagine. At least that is this white, environmentalist’s hope for common ground. And I hope that those who read what I’ve written “in order to understand” will do so charitably, choosing to engage my inevitably flawed metaphors not in ways that engender offense but in the intended manner—an invitation to share perspectives across divergent experiences that converge on a shared commitment to care for one another and the world we share.