A tense standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and a desperate Nevada rancher has been temporarily defused.
Cliven Bundy’s family has run cattle on land near Las Vegas since the 1870s.
The 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 earlier 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 claims the allotment actually belongs to the State of Nevada and the BLM had no jurisdiction to file a lawsuit against him.
But the courts have rejected his arguments. When the BLM finally moved to enforce an order allowing it to remove the cattle, Bundy and a motley collection of cowboys and armed militia members faced off against federal agents.
The BLM has backed off, for now, to avoid violence.
Bundy’s arguments are frivolous. BLM has authority over the allotment. Its actions to protect the tortoise, while devastating to the ranching community, are wholly within the law.
For more than 20 years Bundy has defied legitimate court orders, and his efforts to block the execution of those orders flout the rule of law.
That the federal government holds title to massive parcels of public lands throughout the West has been settled law for a hundred years.
The real question is how that land should be managed and how grazing and natural resource extraction will remain viable and part of the multiple use doctrine that had governed public lands.
Historic government policy once fostered the timber, livestock and mining industries that became the economic lifeblood of rural Western communities. Current policy — the result of environmental lawsuits, regulatory and legislative changes — is largely responsible for draining that lifeblood.
And in that light we understand why Bundy’s pleadings have a romantic appeal, even by many who wince at the spectacle. We sympathize with those who believe that government regulation of traditional pursuits have gone too far.
The constraints on ranchers, timbermen and miners are real. Any hope of getting a legislative solution that accommodates both conservation goals and traditional livelihoods will require reasoned debate and compromise.
It will not be achieved through a shootout in the Nevada desert over specious legal arguments.
Bundy’s trumped-up range war will not further his stated interests, and will do nothing to promote sympathy outside rural Western communities for the legitimate concerns of those who make their living on the land.