For a brief period more than a week ago, American politics seemed to be transported back to the 1990s. The source of the time warp: Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who was engaged in a tense standoff with officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
At issue was the fact that the feds were removing Bundy’s cattle from federal lands on which he had failed to pay grazing fees for more than two decades. With both sides threatening force — armed sympathists joined Bundy; the BLM brought snipers to the scene — it was hard to avoid the memories of violent ’90s conflicts like Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed in the Silver State. It would have been to the eternal discredit of either side had bloodshed resulted from such a low-stakes fight.
Bundy, it bears noting, is far from blameless in this situation. He’s been in clear violation of the law for more than 20 years. And his justification for the defiance — that he doesn’t recognize the authority of the federal government — is risible.
While we not be sympathetic to Bundy’s specific arguments, we are sensitive to his underlying grievance. The land on which Bundy’s cattle were grazing had been used by his family for ranching since the late 19th century. During the past few decades, however, federal officials have greatly constrained private access to those lands, while raising the attendant fees — a pattern that has happened throughout the West, taking a devastating toll on the ranching industry. That doesn’t justify Bundy’s one-man exercise in nullification, but it does call the propriety of the feds’ role into question.
The deeper issue here is the excessive control the feds exercise over land in the American West. In Nevada, the feds own 81 percent of the state’s acreage, according to the Congressional Research Service. In California, nearly half — 47.7 percent — of land belongs to Washington.
There are plenty of instances, of course, where such ownership is entirely unobjectionable. No one doubts the necessity, for instance, of Washington owning the land necessary for military installations and our national parks. But why should property that doesn’t serve such vital purposes remain in government hands?
We’d like to see Washington divest itself of such holdings. The resulting income could swell the Treasury without raising taxes on anyone. And putting more land in private hands would allow residents of these states to negotiate issues like grazing rights through private exchanges — not threats delivered at gunpoint.
Bundy was in the wrong in the Nevada standoff — but that doesn’t make the system he was railing against any less unjust.
— From the Orange County Register