Thomas Lucente: Everyone should stand with Cliven Bundy

First Posted: 4/16/2014

I stand with Cliven Bundy. And you should too, if you value liberty.

Even Ronald Reagan did.

“I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion,” Reagan said in a 1980 campaign speech in Salt Lake City. “Count me in as a rebel.”

The standoff with Bundy is nothing, really, but the next chapter in the Sagebrush Rebellion that began in the 1970s and sort of settled down to a mere simmer under Reagan as he rightly tried to privatize some of the federal government's Western land holdings.

A coalition of ranchers, sheepherders, miners and other leaders formed the Sagebrush Rebellion with the goal of taking control of about 500 million acres of mostly arid land that is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Therein lies the problem.

The federal government owns too much land in the West, which it has no business owning.

According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, the federal government owns roughly 635 million acres of the 2.27 billion acres in the United States, or 28 percent of the land. A disproportionate amount of that is in the Western states.

While the federal government only owns 1.1 percent of Ohio's 26.22 million acres, it owns 81.1 percent of all the land in Nevada. Eighty-one percent! That is millions of acres that could be put to good use by the free market but, instead, is owned and mismanaged by the federal government.

Similar numbers of ownership can be seen across all 13 Western states, which are home to 93 percent of federal land. Outside those states, the federal government only owns 4 percent of the land, probably still too much but certainly better than the 81 percent in Nevada.

But it was not much of a problem before because the federal government permitted ranchers to use the land, free of charge, to graze. Indeed, the government often touted the free grazing land as a means to get people, such as Bundy's ancestors, to relocate to the West.

For more than a century, the government actively tried to get rid of the land until the Progressives came to power in the early part of the 20th century.

It wasn't until 1976 when the federal government finally said it was going to keep the land permanently, which could be construed as a violation of Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution because the federal government is not using it for military purposes. Hence, Bundy's claim that the land belongs to Nevada is steeped in a legitimate constitutional claim.

More practically, though, because the land is owned and managed by the federal government, it is poorly administered and costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

The lands and waters managed by Interior contain valuable minerals, oil and gas, timber, fish, wildlife and recreational resources. Yet because the lands are not managed efficiently, they end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year rather than producing a net return. That's because government agencies have little reason to constrain spending, allocate their investments efficiently or price their resources in an economically or environmentally sound manner.

And the Bundy situation starkly shows this. The whole thing is rooted in saving the habitat of the vaunted desert tortoise. But extinction is a natural part of the life cycle of every species. Studies show that 99.9 percent of every species that ever existed is now extinct, and most specifies only last about 10 million years before disappearing. Additionally, the tortoise has a naturally low reproduction rate and is an easy target for predators. Why should man try to protect that which nature has marked for extinction?

But the government's argument against Bundy lacks any moral weight, given that the federal government ignores the tortoise when it is convenient. In areas where the government is backing silly solar energy plants (which would never thrive in a free market without government subsidies), the tortoise suddenly does not matter.

There also seems to be an active government campaign to rid the West of ranchers. Dozens used to work in the same area with Bundy but have been driven off the land by the government through excessive grazing fees and onerous regulations in order to make room for solar panels and windmills.

As for the Bundy situation specifically, the government response was overkill but in keeping the militarization of our law enforcement agencies. The idea of the federal government sending in snipers and setting up no-fly zones to collect some grazing fees from a rancher should make one shudder in fear of an overbearing, out-of-control central government that lacks good judgment and a sense of proportionality.

So even if you don't like Bundy and believe he is wrong in not paying his grazing fees, you should still cringe at the thought of the federal government owning — and mismanaging — so much land and its use of military force against a single rancher over money and a tortoise.

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