It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of Cliven Bundy’s dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
However, the overwhelming response by Americans from across the West who flocked to Bundy’s rural Nevada ranch last week to confront the BLM reveals a much wider issue.
This was just the latest flashpoint.
Hundreds showed up in support of Bundy, some from as far away as Montana. So what prompts an individual to load up a car with provisions and travel such a large distance only to confront an armed horde of federal agents?
Clearly, Bundy’s supporters share a deeply held conviction that something important is wrong. One man who traveled from California told reporters, “I myself am willing to be shot and killed for constitutional rights and principles.”
Were “constitutional rights and principles” really at stake in rural Nevada last week?
It depends upon who you ask.
Las Vegas columnist Steve Sebelius points out that Bundy failed to pay the BLM grazing fees for two decades and was, therefore, in violation of federal law. Likewise, BLM officials note they had a court order to initiate a roundup of Bundy cattle grazing on federally controlled lands.
However, Bundy’s family has been raising cattle on those lands for more than a century. When his family settled the land, control over lands in the American West was governed primarily by the Homestead Acts, which — in accordance with John Locke’s conception of property rights — recognized individuals who lived on and made productive use of a parcel of land over a long period of time as the legitimate “owner” of that parcel.
According to the principle behind the Homestead Acts, Bundy’s family would be the rightful owners of the land. In fact, the BLM wasn’t even created until 1946 and can’t point to any bill of sale that ever gave the agency the right to control the land where Bundy’s cattle graze.
Even so, Bundy went along with the BLM agenda for “multiple use” of rangelands beginning in the 1970s, under the belief that he could establish a cooperative relationship with the agency. By the early 1990s, though, Bundy decided to end the relationship and stopped paying fees to BLM for its management of the land. In 2012, Bundy told Las Vegas columnist Vin Suprynowicz that he felt forced into that position when the BLM demanded that his cattle not graze during springtime — the only season in which cattle can gain weight on a desert range — in order to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise. (Research, however — as Suprynowicz pointed out — shows desert tortoises do better on land where cattle graze.)
Essentially, the BLM’s demand that Bundy stop using the grazing rights he was paying for during the crucial spring months was a demand he abandon his family’s livelihood, since it would have destroyed his ability to raise cattle at all. As Bundy told reporters from Range magazine in 1999, “Every time we tried some compromise — they wanted more. It was like talking to a greedy landlord.”
So Bundy dug in his heels and continued to graze as his family had always done even though his occupation now caused agitation among the federal officials who had appointed themselves overseers of the land. Eventually, the psychological progression of Bundy’s opposition toward the BLM would cement his attitude into one of outright dismissal of any federal sovereignty at all: Last week, he told radio reporters, “I don’t recognize the United States Government as even existing.”
Bundy has unquestionably been harmed by the federales, but his rhetoric would seem likely to undermine public sympathy for his struggle. And yet, despite that, hundreds of Americans flocked to his aid.
It’s because Bundy’s situation is merely the latest flashpoint in a growing resentment across the American West of the federal government’s presumptuous and frequently abusive administration of the land. In Nevada, where federal authorities control 87 percent of the land — leaving the people only 13 percent — public resentment toward the federal land imperium is pervasive and bipartisan.
On multiple occasions, state lawmakers have demanded a return of federal lands to the state, claiming that Congress has violated the state’s Equal Footing rights by denying its residents access to their own land. In the mid-1990s, both legislative chambers even voted unanimously to amend the state constitution and demand a return of lands to the state, only to meet continued federal obstinacy.
Nevadans and other Westerners — increasingly crammed into small, high-density enclaves — have had to make extraordinary concessions to accommodate the imperial mindset that increasingly characterizes federal officials.
Bundy’s plight has tapped into a growing hostility toward this ever-avaricious federal imperium. That’s why so many from across the West were inspired to gather at his ranch.
Without a resolution to the underlying cause of tension, however, the skirmish in Bunkerville will not be the last — nor least — conflict between federal agents and private citizens.
It’s long past time for Washington to correct its infringements on the Equal Footing rights of Western states. That’s a peaceful solution that would prevent future confrontations.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.