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Public lands clashes have long history

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

A dispute between federal authorities and a rancher in Nevada is emblematic of historic tensions, experts say.

A high-profile conflict between a Nevada rancher and federal authorities appears to be temporarily defused, but experts say it points to long standing tensions over public lands.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has backed off from confiscating cattle grazing on public land that are owned by rancher Cliven Bundy. The BLM claims Bundy owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.

The move was meant to take the heat out of a situation that BLM was afraid would turn violent, but the underlying dispute is likely to continue as the agency seeks to recover money from the rancher.

Bundy did not respond to a request for comment from Capital Press.

From a broader perspective, the debacle can be seen as a flashpoint in the longstanding hostility that some ranchers and natural resource users feel toward federal land managers, experts say.

“The backdrop is really significant. It’s another sagebrush rebellion,” said Martin Nie, a professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana.

“At the end of the day, it’s a lot of symbolism and political theater. What is going on in Nevada should be viewed in that larger context,” said Nie.

From a legal standpoint, Bundy’s arguments against the BLM don’t hold water — at least if you recognize the primacy of federal courts and century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

His dispute began in 1993, when BLM capped the size of the herd on Bundy’s allotment near Bunkerville, Nev. Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees in protest, and a year later BLM terminated his permit altogether.

A federal court first ordered him to remove animals from the land in 1998.

In 2012, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Bundy, alleging that he allowed cattle to graze on BLM property, despite an injunction barring him from the land.

Bundy responded that BLM was trying to drive him and other ranchers off public lands to protect the threatened desert tortoise.

He claimed the land in question actually belonged to the State of Nevada and the BLM had no jurisdiction to file a lawsuit against him.

Last year, a federal judge roundly rejected Bundy’s arguments and ordered him to remove his cattle from the land.

If he refused, the judge said that federal authorities could seize and impound the livestock, which ultimately led to the recent standoff.

Failed challenges to federal jurisdiction over public lands have a long tradition in the West, said Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College who studies environmental history and public lands management.

“The current case is old as far as its aspirations,” Miller said.

Such questions were resolved in 1911, though, when the Supreme Court conclusively affirmed the federal government’s ownership and authority over such lands in a ruling known as U.S. v Grimaud, he said.

That case — which pitted a California shepherd against the U.S. Forest Service — dooms legal arguments like Bundy’s, Miller said.

“He is wasting everybody’s time and money,” he said. “It’s never going to achieve the ends that he wants.”

Given the allegations of unpaid grazing fees and cattle trespass, the outpouring of support for Bundy’s position is perhaps surprising, said Nie.

“This seems like a pretty bad choice of case, given the facts of the conflict,” he said.

The dispute has likely received such widespread attention due to the confrontation between anti-government militia and federal agents, Nie said.

“It’s that extreme element,” he said.

Even so, discomfort with federal management of public lands isn’t confined to the political fringe, Nie said.

Several state legislatures — Idaho, Montanta, Utah and Wyoming — have examined proposals related to the transfer of federal land to states in recent years, he said.

There’s a perception that state ownership would remove many of the obstacles to natural resource industries, Nie said.

Beyond that, states with large federal land ownership receive no tax revenue from those properties, he said.

With federal budget constraints, there’s a shadow over “payment-in-lieu-of-taxes” programs that compensate states, Nie said.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “That’s a legislative policy concern.”

Bundy’s clash with the BLM has put grazing groups in an awkward position.

The Public Lands Council — which advocates for ranchers who rely on federal lands — appears to sympathize with some of Bundy’s concerns while distancing itself from his actions.

“We defend the rule of law and don’t condone acting outside of that,” said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the group.

The situation has sprung from frustration over environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, which threaten continued grazing on public land, he said.

“It all comes down to the decision to take livestock off federal lands, which wasn’t what was envisioned by Congress,” Van Liew said.



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