The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s is undergoing a renaissance in the American West. The unfortunate personification of that movement is a rebellious elderly Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy.
Mr. Bundy has convinced himself that the federal government does not in fact own 87% of Nevada, or at least not the portion of Nevada that his cattle have grazed for decades. Pursuant to his novel reasoning, he has refused for many years to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, notwithstanding a long line of administrative and judicial proceedings that have rejected his position.
This rangeland melodrama came to a head last month when BLM sent wranglers and law enforcement agents to remove Bundy’s trespassing cattle from the range. A number of sympathetic friends, family members, and self-styled militia men and women from across the Southwest, some of them brandishing firearms, rallied to Bundy’s cause and literally got in the way of BLM’s cops. The resulting confrontation was all over the internet, courtesy YouTube. It featured police dogs threatening female cancer-survivor protesters, and some protester behavior that would fairly be described as disturbing the peace, except that in rural Nevada there are rarely enough people around to be disturbed by any sort of behavior. We then witnessed the US Senate Majority Leader and fellow Nevadan Senator Harry Reid calling Bundy’s fans domestic terrorists, Bundy himself making insensitive racial remarks, and the few and no doubt confused trespassing cattle that were rounded up ultimately being released back onto the range.
In my view, the only behavior that was acceptable in this whole comedy of errors was that of the cattle and the dogs. Virtually all the humans involved should have known better and behaved better. BLM’s leadership in Reno or DC should have anticipated the volatility of the situation and been more personally involved in managing it on the ground. Law enforcement officials are not known for their diplomatic skills; that’s not their job, but BLM leadership should have those skills and more deftly managed the situation. On the other hand, Bundy had no right to ignore federal law and no justification for making up his own legal theory flying in the face of 150 years of history. If one wants to practice civil disobedience, then one should follow the example of the civil rights movement and be prepared to peacefully go to jail, not brandish automatic weapons at law enforcement. Conservative leaders from across the West who initially rallied to Bundy’s defense picked a very flawed hero to personify their cause.
In frustration, I am reminded of Rodney King’s famous “Can’t we all get along?” plea as Los Angeles rioted in the 1990s in response to police brutality. I am afraid that as long as the federal government continues to own the vast majority of the real estate in the western states, and is viewed all too often by rural westerners as a remote occupying power, that it will continue to be very hard to get along. When one considers that in some counties in the West the federal government owns well in excess of 90% of the real estate, the resentment toward Washington DC becomes a bit more understandable. Eastern local governments would be apoplectic at the thought of a single out-of-state landowner owning 90% of the land within their jurisdiction, and only paying real estate taxes when it was in the mood to do so. That is the daily reality for Western counties.
I don’t blame the federal land managers; they have a nearly impossible job. Congress has told them to simultaneously preserve wilderness, promote mining and grazing, protect endangered species, boost fossil fuel production, protect the environment, support bird hunting and birdwatching, protect wild horses and burros that eat the vegetation also favored by deer and antelope that they are also supposed to protect, and foster all types of sometimes incompatible outdoor recreation. This is called the multiple use principle, which is a worthy notion in theory. BLM and the Forest Service do have well-oiled land management planning programs that are supposed to rationalize all these competing interests. Still, in its daily application on the ground it is fraught with multiple conflicts among users of the public lands.
Perhaps it is time to fundamentally reconsider federal land ownership in the West. Does the federal government really need to be in the business of refereeing all these competing interests over such a vast estate? Wouldn’t everyone be better off if the Western states were to be given more authority over much of this multiple use real estate? After all, even Cliven Bundy is apparently willing to subject himself to Nevada State law. Might the federal government be wiser to narrow its Western real property interest to national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and Congressionally designated wilderness areas? I fear that as long as the Western land ownership status quo prevails, it will continue to be challenging for the federal government and many Westerners to “get along”.