April 16, 2014

Shrink feds' share of the West

Nevada ranch standoff illustrates how much land Washington unnecessarily owns.


For a brief period late last week, 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 government’s Bureau of Land Management.

At issue was the fact that the feds were removing Mr. 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 – Mr. Bundy joined by armed sympathists [sic], the BLM bringing 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, and armed conflict was avoided. It would have been to the eternal discredit of either side had bloodshed resulted from such a low-stakes fight. Disputes over grazing rights aren’t grounds for summoning either armed militias or militarized law enforcement.

Mr. 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 may not be sympathetic to Mr. Bundy’s specific arguments, we are, however, sensitive to his underlying grievance. The land on which Mr. 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 Mr. Bundy’s one-man exercise in nullification, but it does call the propriety of the government’s role into question.

The deeper issue here is the excessive control that the federal government exercises over land in the American West. In Nevada, the feds own 81 percent of the state’s acreage, according to the Congressional Research Service. Here in California, nearly half – 47.7 percent – of our 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.

Mr. Bundy was in the wrong in the Nevada standoff – but that doesn’t make the system he was railing against any less unjust.