SPOKANE, Wa. -- When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) landed in eastern Washington yesterday, a light brown haze and a smell of smoke permeated the air. His plane landed with the warning that the raging forest fires of the Pacific Northwest had limited visibility. Signs along the roads warned of the fire danger, or thanked the firefighters who'd come from as far as Australia and Massachusetts to battle the blazes.
Paul saw the heavy, stumblebum hand of government at work.
"Justice Brandeis said that the most cherished of rights among civilized people is the right to be left alone," Paul said to an audience of around 700 people in Spokane. "I think if you were left alone, you might manage your forests a little bit better."
The gallows humor struck a chord with conservatives who have been crusading, for years, for the government to hand over much of the land it owns in western states. Activists in Utah and Idaho, states where Paul will campaign this week, have demanded that the federal government stop taking over land -- a movement that gained national attention after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's standoff with the feds. Western legislators like Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) have gotten behind legislation to allow more logging on federal land.
"You have federal people who aren't from here come in to manage the forests," Paul said in an interview after his Spokane speech. "The rules that they're bound by are sort of mandates, one size fits all. It probably would be a good study to compare privately owned timber forests to federally owned forests -- it would be a good comparison. In the East, the federal government owned land but sold it early on. In the West, the feds have kept a lot of it. I think there's a way to transfer some of it over."
At least one Paul supporter linked the federal policies to the international green movement's crusade for "sustainability." Clint Didier, a former Washington Redskins tight end who has made several runs for office as a Republican, spoke at Paul's Spokane rally then explained that the United Nations was issuing orders that bureaucrats were using to wreck America's west.
"We've got all these federal agencies going to these U.N. conferences and bringing back these management practices that are circumventing our sovereignty," said Didier. "You go talk to the older forest management people and they'll tell you, you can't fight forest fires without heavy equipment. We don't use heavy equipment anymore. We let the fires burn. How do you protect these endangered species if their forests are burning down?"
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), another Paul endorser who is accompanying him to most of his final Western campaign stops, agreed that the fires could be controlled or prevented more easily if Washington just backed off.
"The problem," said Labrador, "is a federal bureaucracy that doesn't understand what's happening on the ground. They're not allowing people to graze on their lands. We can't do reforestation as quickly as we want to. All of that is building up the fuels for natural disasters like what we've just had."