By now we’re all aware of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who “defied” the “tyrannical” federal government this past weekend. He’s become a cause celeb of the extreme right, because… because… because he’s not complying with unconstitutional laws that nobody seems able to identify.
See, for over a hundred years the Bundy clan has been grazing their personal cattle on public land near their ranch. For the longest time, nobody said much about it, and each generation of Bundys grew more and more to view the public land as their own, to do with as they wished. They even concocted novel theories to justify that belief, such as claiming they were there first and therefore had dibs to the land in perpetuity. Never mind that just three decades before the first Bundy arrived and homesteaded, the area was part of a different country. And before that, there were these other people we call Indians living there, but they don’t count in Bundy world.
Then along came the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. This probably really pissed off Cliven’s grandpa. According to today’s conservatives, this was just another example of federal overreach that would escalate over the twentieth century. What they fail to acknowledge is that by the time Congress passed the act, it had become painfully clear that management of public lands was necessary.
This became apparent even to politicians in Washington, D.C. when a Dust Bowl storm from the Great Plains reached the East Coast for the first time in May 1934. The Dust Bowl is considered the worst man-made ecological and agriculture disaster in U.S. history, brought about in part by poor farming practices. Once its effects reached the nation’s capital, Congress moved to regulate the use of public land in order to stop the kind of behavior that laid waste to once farmable land.
The Taylor Grazing Act was one result, passed just two months after Washington experienced the Dust Bowl firsthand. Its purpose was to “stop injury to the public grazing lands [excluding Alaska] by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; [and] to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range.” It wasn’t a matter of federal overreach; it was a matter of taking proper care of a valuable national resources on behalf of the people of the United States. It was obvious that the farmers and ranchers wouldn’t do it themselves.
People like Bundy hate the Bureau of Land Management. Where did the BLM come from? Again, Congress recognized that management of public land was necessary, even as far back as the nineteenth century, when timber was a valuable fuel source and construction material, and there were worries about its depletion. Congress authorized the executive branch to administer public land, and one of the eventual results was the creation of the BLM in 1946, which now handles things like grazing permits.
Meanwhile, the Bundys kept right on using public land like they always did; that is, until 1993. That’s when the BLM issued new regulations pertaining to the public land Bundy was using, in part to protect the desert tortoise, which by then was threatened with extinction. The BLM reduced the amount of grazing allowed on the public land Bundy was using, and required him to pay a fee to continue using it.
Well, Bundy doesn’t even recognize the existence of the federal government, so he surely wasn’t going to pay them anything or adhere to their regulations. He nobly tried paying the county, but they refused because it’s not their land and not their money to collect. So he just went on using the public resources as he wished and ignored the fees altogether. Not only that, he started grazing cattle on additional public land because, well, he’s a Bundy and they’ve been there for a long time, so they deserve to help themselves to whatever they want. Some people might consider that to be stealing from the American people, but to Bundy’s defenders, those people are clearly lacking in morals and don’t understand the constitution.
To no one’s surprise, Bundy’s actions caused the BLM to revoke his permit in 1994. A court judgement in 1998 ordered Bundy to remove his livestock and to pay the federal government trespass damages for any livestock he left behind. This didn’t phase Bundy because, after all, he does’t believe the federal government exists. Finally, last year federal judge Lloyd D. George — a Nevada native and Ronald Reagan appointee, not some East Coast elite liberal — issued yet another ruling against Bundy.
In court, Bundy actually argued — again — that the United States doesn’t own the land in question. Unfortunately for Cliven, the judge actually does understand things like laws and the Constitution. Explaining the obvious in his judgment against Bundy, George wrote, “[T]he public lands in Nevada are the property of the United States because the United States has held title to those public lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States.”
Bundy made other specious claims, such as that the state of Nevada’s right to the land overrides the federal’s, and that the Property Clause of the United States Constitution only applies to federal land outside the borders of states, etc. Judge George must have stifled a chuckle or two at the amateurishness of it all. In any event, the court found that “the public interest is negatively affected by Bundy’s continuing trespass,” that Bundy had to remove his livestock within 45 days, and that the United States was entitled to seize and remove any of his cattle that remain after that date. Needless to say, Bundy didn’t comply. The public interest? That’s just collectivist mumbo jumbo meant to stifle Bundy’s freedom! Marner has the rest of the details of the ensuing standoff in his post Over The Edge.
You can certainly argue that the BLM’s actions were ham-fisted and over-the-top, but Bundy’s legal claims are without merit. Nevertheless, conservatives continue to claim he is a victim of “unconstitutional laws,” although the specifics fail them. These days, conservatives have a habit of rallying around some pretty odd causes. As already noted, Bundy doesn’t recognize the federal government as legitimate. “I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada,” he recently told a radio reporter. “…I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But, I don’t recognize the United States Government as even existing.” He also told the Los Angeles Times, “I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.” Eventually, this won’t end well for Bundy, and it will be nobody’s fault but his own.