Coming from a family of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico cattle ranchers, I empathize deeply with the need to treat farmers and ranchers well. I also believe in the need for policies that create prosperity for all citizens.
Last weekend, Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, led armed demonstrators into a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, where they began an occupation of a small federally-owned building. The ostensible reason was the imminent incarceration of two ranchers convicted of setting fires to public lands in 2001 and 2006. However, this extraordinary measure on the part of Bundy’s group is rooted in a much larger and complex dispute over the government’s right to regulate use of public lands.
Ammon Bundy justifies the takeover as “a protest of the unconstitutional transactions of land rights and water rights.” In 1993, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) declined to renew the elder Bundy’s grazing permit, as the land had been declared a reserve for the threatened desert tortoise. Bundy disputed the legitimacy of the BLM’s ownership and right to regulation of grazing on the land. Bundy, without a grazing permit, continued to graze his cattle in the area, then refused to pay the resulting fines in excess of a million dollars.
Formed in 1946 for the purpose of overseeing public land, the BLM was a consolidation of two previously existing agencies. It manages a variety of natural resources and regulates mining, logging, and fracking practices all over the country. In 2014, it managed around 18,000 ranchers’ permits, which allow livestock to graze on federal land that is leased for this purpose. The BLM grants grazing rights permits to ranchers at rates substantially lower–as little as 93%– than market rates for private land. While the lease of grazing rights for public land might seem an inexpensive and reasonable requirement, the Bundys believe they should be able to use the land for free because their ancestors worked it before the bureau was established. What about Native Americans though? They were there before the ranchers. Nearly all land in the world was taken by force at some point. So, the argument in truth seems to be that might is right, except when you are on the losing side.
The Bundy case is only one instance exemplifying a larger issue. Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative, has stated, “It’s so much bigger than Bundy. There are issues . . . where the federal government is exerting control over things it was never supposed to control.” The government was not supposed to own the land, he says, but rather just be a trustee of the land. According to Ivory, the ownership of the land “should be transferred back to the states.”
Eighty percent of the land in the Bundys’ home state of Nevada is owned by the federal government, as is over half the land in Oregon. The government offers rates drastically lower than those of market prices and is willing to do so if ranchers are willing to accept the aid. As it turns out, grazing rights fees on government land cover only 15% of the cost of maintaining it, with taxpayers covering the rest.
The takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon and the Bundys’ refusal to pay fines for letting their cattle graze on protected land are just two conflicts within a complex controversy over who really owns the land, should has the right to use it, and under what terms.
Ideally, all land would be considered as held in trust for the wellbeing of citizens and the natural environments that support them. The best way to achieve that is to continually charge those who have been given the right of exclusive use of land the full rental value, and to protect certain areas for environmental purposes. This often goes by the moniker “Land Value Tax,” proposed by the economist Henry George. His rationale or the tax, which would equalize the benefit of natural resources is as follows:
“The equal right of all [wo]men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air — it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some [wo]men have a right to be in this world, and others no right.”