Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher, has an interesting relationship with the United States in general and federal law in particular. Bundy has been locked in a 20-year battle with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing on federal lands. He has grazed his cattle freely while refusing to pay the required fees associated with the activity. Over the struggle’s course, Bundy has run up a tab of more than $1 million in unpaid fees and fines, ignoring two court orders to stop running cattle on the land and, last week, engaged in an armed standoff with BLM agents. The whole thing is rather perplexing.
His story is a relevant parable for the sometimes complicated relationship between Westerners and the federal government with respect to land ownership. The lines can become blurred for those who live adjacent to or interact intensely with public lands – what is public can easily start to feel semi-private. It is not, however.
As Bundy sees it, the BLM’s claim to the land is invalid because his family has been working the acreage since the 1800s, before Nevada became a state. That Bundy and his family have done so does not give them claim to the land, though.
The facts are clear, both in terms of state and federal law: The United States has owned the land in question since Mexico handed it over in 1848, according to court rulings as well as basic U.S. history. As the landowner, the United States has an interest in properly caring for its property – an endeavor it assigns to the BLM. And as a publicly held resource, the land managed by the BLM is available for public use, according to the agency’s mission, “To sustain the health, diversity and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Charging a fee for some of those higher-impact uses – such as grazing, gas and oil development or, in some cases, recreation – is appropriate. It is the role of any property manager, public or private. And it operates wholly separately from any ideological position – or at least it should.
To justify his actions, though, Bundy has taken a rather extreme view of what he is doing, wherein “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” he said to an ABC reporter. And in that blind spot, Bundy has allowed himself all sorts of legal and ethical leeway, engaging many others in his plight.
The BLM arrived, armed, in the Nevada desert to round up Bundy’s rogue cattle and was greeted by armed protesters. Over several days, the BLM de-escalated the situation, which easily could have become violent, by releasing the cows the agency already had wrangled and essentially walking away from the confrontation.
That should not send the message to Bundy or anyone that his position prevailed. Those who use public lands must pay to do so. Bundy is no exception, nor is anyone who perceives federal land ownership as problematic. The fact is that the federal government does own land – lots of it – and is responsible for managing it.