Cliven Bundy is a courageous man. Most ranchers, faced with demands by the federal government that they should pay $1 million in back taxes for grazing their cattle on federal lands, would have caved in and allowed Sen. Reid and his goons to rustle their cattle in settlement of the debt.
But no. Farmer Bundy decided that you can fight City Hall. In fact, City Hall, in the shape of the governor of Nevada, took his side. He stood firm, and hundreds of his neighbors stood with him.
In what is turning into a public-relations train wreck for the totalitarian Obama administration, Mr. Bundy and his growing band of friends and supporters faced down the forces of federal lawlessness and disorder. One goon flung a 65-year-old to the ground, while another goon repeatedly Tased Mr. Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy.
The elder Bundy argues that he and his cattle were on the land long before the federal government decided to help itself to unreasonably large grazing fees. He claims a prior right – something akin to the ancient Roman-law principle of usufruct, or lawful possession by right of use.
Now, I am no expert in the complex land laws of the United States, and I do not pretend to know whether the federal government has any lawful right to the vast sums of money it now demands. However, in the U.K. rights of common grazing (or, in Scotland, crofters’ rights) are jealously protected and defended. There would be no question of demanding grazing fees from farmers some of whose rights predate the last successful invasion of Britain, the Norman conquest in 1066.
Also, we have a statute of limitations that says a civil debt that is not pursued for six years ceases to be a debt. Here, Mr. Bundy might well not be liable for grazing fees going back six years or more.
But the case raises a wider concern that the moribund Republican Party would do well to wake up and champion. Federal land holdings, particularly in the southwestern states, are enormous. In a nation that once prided itself on allowing the free market to thrive, a staggering percentage of the land is nationalized.
Here is an opportunity for the Republicans to propose a way to pay off the national debt that has already crippled Uncle Sam’s armed forces to the point where the once-mighty United States could not intervene to stop Mr. Putin helping himself to large chunks of a neighboring nation’s territory in flagrant defiance of all the most sacred principles of international law.
They should promise to conduct a zero-base audit of all federal land holdings. The presumption of the zero-base audit is that all lands that are now nationalized ought to be in private ownership, and will be sold off to the highest bidders unless the various federal agencies now using or managing them are able to make a case that the elected Republican administration accepts.
Republican states should do likewise with state land-holdings. Almost one-third of the entire 2.3 billion acres in the country is owned by the federal government. And that is a scandal.
The law to sell off nearly all of the surplus nationalized land in the United States would allow certain national parks and nature reserves, defense installations and other necessary land-holdings. All of the rest would be put up for sale at once.
In Britain, the government of Margaret Thatcher established a register of derelict and surplus state land-holdings. I nearly bought a disused railway curve right in the heart of London, for next to nothing. At the last minute, permission was granted for the Channel Tunnel, and the curve was needed to run Continental trains. But the register worked quite well and liberated much land that would otherwise have gone to waste.
The United States should now do likewise and – at the very least – release for public sale all land-holdings it is not actually using for a specific and valuable purpose.
The land around Mr. Bundy’s ranch – as we know from documents the crooks in the Bureau of Land Management had unsuccessfully tried to hide – had been earmarked for a useless solar farm. The Chinese were going to spend $5 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money on building it – until they realized the site was too far from any major center of population, so there was no one they could sell the electricity to.
Land management by bureaucrats is nearly always an unmitigated environmental disaster. In Africa, environmental groups demanded the protection of the elephant population from ivory-hunters, and worldwide agreements banning the trade in ivory were pompously put in place. In no time, the elephant population grew exponentially.
So the same environmental groups, unblushing, said the elephants had become too numerous and were trampling all over the veld, killing off the pretty flowers. The cruel decision was taken to slaughter 40,000 elephants, a far larger number than would ever have been slaughtered by ivory hunters.
Then the eco-freako who had been chiefly responsible for the mad decision to kill the elephants realized that their trampling of the undergrowth was actually good for the land. The slaughter was halted, but not before devastating and permanent damage had been done to the elephant herds – and to the land they were no longer keeping in good order.
Given this history, would anyone believe the Bureau of Land Management’s talking-points memo about the environmental damage Mr. Bundy’s cattle are allegedly causing? I, for one, would rather let him have and graze the land.
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical “Oklahoma,” the rousing finale says: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.” The people may belong to the land, but too much of the land does not belong to the people. Let Mr Bundy’s spirited defense of his right to improve the land by grazing it be the catalyst that changes all that.
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