In 2014, the dangerous and potentially explosive situation in the Nevada desert has nothing to do with nuclear warheads. This week, the tensions around what started as a land use conflict between the United States Government and one Nevada rancher, escalated to what might have been a regular revolution. While the Feds eventually backed down and went away, the land use war rages on as it has for the past 40 years.
Over the weekend the hostilities between armed Federal officers and a growing group of angry Americans escalated to the point that it appeared an all-out revolution was about to erupt. The latest Sagebrush Revolution came when cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, whose family has grazed their cattle on land now under management by the Bureau of Land Management, had his animals rounded up and confiscated by the feds over fees charged by the Government but unpaid by Bundy.
This particular dispute has been raging between the rancher and the BLM for over 20 years. The Bureau says that Bundy owes over a million dollars in grazing fees for his cattle. Bundy claims that the moneys owed are owed to the ‘sovereign state’ of Nevada, not the United States Government. Bundy says the money belongs not to them but to the State of Nevada.
With the publicity on the national news, armed militia members from all over the nation have been arriving at the protest site, standing with the Bundy family as Americans angry with governmental over-reach and prepared, by virtue of their very visible fire-arms, to fight to the death over what they claim are their freedoms.
It may appear to be about the law, but, as in most conflicts of this kind, it’s all about money.
On one side, there is the money of environmental extremists and their lobbyists vying for control over the immeasurable parcels of Western land deemed useless by most. These zealots face off against public land use proponents ranging from ranchers and mining interests to loggers and snowmobilers.
It’s not about the western tortoise, as some would have you believe. Originally, the Bundy family was told their traditional family grazing land was off-limits because their cattle were adversely affecting the endangered Western Tortoise. In the intervening years, the tortoise has been relocated to a reserve where they have overgrown their space, very like the imported bison in YellowstonePark, and are currently being killed.
The Bundy’s cattle and the tortoise have been cohabitating the land for over a century.
Some say the battle is more likely about the intervention of Nevada’s most recognizable political name, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (See related article elsewhere on this site.) But the battle is much older and more widespread than most people understand. The battle is about power and powerful friends with big checkbooks. That includes the powerfully large and checkbook-gifted environmental lobby.
In spite of the fact that the Revolutionary War was fought, in part, to get the King and the subsequent government away from the ownership of dirt, the concept of such primary interest to our founding fathers has been forgotten. Before there were officially “united” states, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, between the King and the citizens of the soon-to-be-united States stated that:
[The states are..] “…to be free sovereign and independent states, that he [the king] treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.”
This provision became known as the “Equal Footing Doctrine.” We have come to nebulously call it States Rights, and another entire bloody war was fought in the mid 1800’s over differing interpretations of it. Essentially, the treaty and its application in subsequent documents says that the Federal Government may acquire land, but such must be purchased from the individual sovereign states. (Research discovers no such purchase by the Federal Government.)
When, in an effort to get the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase into the hands of the citizenry, the West was opened up for homesteading interests, people came flooding into the west grabbing up acreage for purposes of farming and ranching. What land that was not already relegated to Indian Reservations, and of no interest to farmers, was left unclaimed. For nearly a century, it was used, rightfully some would say, by personal and industrial interests.
Ranchers happily grazed their flocks and herds on the land. Loggers logged it. Miners, even the small mines owned and operated by individuals, flourished. All the miner needed to do was stake a claim and promise that he was either a citizen or was planning to become one eventually.
Fast forward to 2014. Over two-thirds (65 percent) of the western half of the United States is under management by the Federal Government, in Alaska the land owned by the government equals 98 percent of the land mass. (In the west, most of the deserts and much of the vertical land known as mountains are under management of the Federal Government.) That land is under the management of various and sundry Federal agencies that have become increasingly heavy-handed in enforcing a laundry list of regulations created and imposed by people in Washington.
It is this conflict between management philosophies between local users and federal bureaucrats that has sparked brushfires in the west for generations.
The huge environmental industry is nearly always at odds with privately owned concerns. These folks would have a Montana rancher, who purchased a particular acreage so that his livestock might drink from river running through it, to fence his cattle away from the water and not allow them access. The droppings of domestic animals are, they say, dangerous to the world at large. To which the rancher replies, “Fat chance.”
Local entrepreneurs have, for generations, recognized that the tourism industry as one example, one of the five largest industries globally, requires care and conservation of the land if the industry and it’s fruits are to remain sustainable. The environmental concerns attempt to dictate how and who will enjoy the right to recreate within “public lands.” As a result of their deep pockets and their influence over the Federal government, environmental extremists get their way, while ordinary citizens and ranchers like the Bundys in Nevada are forced to comply or go to court.
Such ‘ordinary’ folks are told that they may bring their cases to a Federal court, before a Federal judge, and wait for the Judicial branch to decide. It would seem that the deck in this newfangled western game of poker is stacked. Hence the potential for angst, and even violence, west of the 100thMeridian.