The biggest news story of the past week was not something happening in the Ukraine or Syria. It happened in the Nevada desert.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family stood their ground in front of 200 armed federal government agents trying to confiscate his cattle. In fact, they did take his cattle, but then released them and left his ranch as a means to reduce tensions and avoid violence.
What was Bundy’s crime? For 21 years he has refused to pay annual grazing fees he says are unconstitutional because, in his view, the federal government does not own the land, Nevada does. Besides the issue of the grazing fees, recently the Bureau of Land Management stopped issuing permits for cattle grazing in that area in order to protect the habitat of a desert tortoise now on the endeared species list.
So, rancher Bundy’s basic problem is not the grazing fees, it is the denial of a grazing permit. The Bundys have grazed cattle on that same land for 136 years, but nowadays, the desert tortoise has more rights than Bundy’s cattle. Bundy is the only local rancher who has not yet been driven out of business by federal land management policies.
After scores of his fellow citizens rallied to Bundy’s side during the standoff, the armed federal intruders withdrew and released Bundy’s cattle. But nothing has been resolved, and the federal government still has Bundy in its sights – or in its cross hairs, to be more precise.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said after the federal forces withdrew on Sunday, April 6, “It’s not over.” And for the first time in memory, Harry Reid is right. In fact, it’s just beginning.
And Reid should know. It was Reid’s former Senate staff aide of eight years, 37-year-old Neil Kornze, who organized and directed the invasion of Bundy’s ranch. Kornze is the newly installed head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and this action against Bundy’s cattle was one of his first official acts.
The issue here is bigger than the fate of rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle. The federal government continues to assert ownership not only of the land Bundy has been grazing his cattle on since 1877, but of 84.5 percent of all Nevada land. The federal government also owns 69 percent of Alaska, 57 percent of Utah, 53 percent of Oregon, 48 percent of Arizona, and 36 percent of Colorado. Indeed, the BLM alone owns 245,000,000 acres of land, an area half the size of Mexico and larger than 48 of our 50 states.
The narrow legal issue in the Bundy ranch controversy is his refusal to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management over the past 21 years. There is a court order telling him he must pay the fees, and many conservative commentators say he has no legal leg to stand on in that defiance. In terms of “settled case law,” they are probably right. But, is that a good enough reason to abandon Cliven Bundy and his family?
Martin Luther King heard the same arguments when he protested segregated lunch counters in Birmingham, Ala. King chose to go to jail to challenge those “settled laws,” and those laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Civil obedience to protest unjust laws has a long and honorable tradition in America. But if a Nevada rancher challenges a federal land management law he thinks is unconstitutional, it is called greed or extremist lawbreaking. But what law has Bundy broken except the one he believes is unconstitutional? He is not an anarchist.
The only anarchist here is President Obama in claiming the right to decide which laws to enforce and which ones to ignore – or change administratively, as he does every few months with immigration law. If Obama wanted to show some semblance of consistency in his use of administrative orders to rectify gaps or inequities in the law, he could use his executive-order pen to declare that this BLM regulation on grazing permits will not apply to families with a documented tenure on range land going back over 100 years. But don’t hold your breath.
There is a legislative remedy for the injustice being perpetrated against Cliven Bundy and his family. Federal law can be changed to recognize the property rights of ranching families whose presence on the land goes back over four generations. As for federal land ownership, the federal government should divest itself of most of its vast domain of western lands and turn the land over to the states.
For rancher Bundy, the issue is not the money, not the grazing fees, it is the validity of federal authority over the desert land his family has been grazing cattle on since 1877. Yes, federal case law says he is wrong and that he owes the money. But if the underlying law is itself unjust, we should join those who are calling for the law to be be changed – and for the BLM to put enforcement actions against Cliven Bundy on indefinite hold.
Until the law is changed, it is the height of arrogance for any federal agency to say this particular law on cattle grazing should be enforced at the point of a gun, while at the same time, our immigration laws are set aside and the Border Patrol is told to stand down. The rule of law is an endangered species more vital to our survival than the desert tortoise.
Concerned about the impact of illegal aliens on the United States? Don’t miss Tom Tancredo’s book, “In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security” — and with your purchase get a free copy of “Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders”!
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