Source: Congressional Western Caucus

Source: Congressional Western Caucus

The standoff between supporters of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires on federal land they leased to graze cattle and government officials amounts to a clash of cultures, according to a legal observer.

“Those sipping lattes, they have no clue how the ranching economy, the Western economy works. They believe ranching destroys the environment, that ranching is a vestige of a bygone era,” said attorney James S. Burling, the litigation director of the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Two years after the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, two of Bundy’s sons helped initiate the occupation of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

A federal appeals court in October upheld a five-year sentence for the two Oregon Ranchers – Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve – for fires they started to control noxious weeds and for other land management purposes. The Hammonds reported to prison Monday in San Pedro, California, to finish serving their sentences.

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The Pacific Legal Foundation has considerable experience litigating issues of land, water and grazing rights across the American West, where Washington owns or controls a majority of the land in some states.

The Congressional Research Service documents that the federal government owns about 640 million acres of land, about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres in the U.S.

Four agencies administer 609 million acres of the land: The Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, all in the Department of the Interior.

Most of those lands are in the West and Alaska.

Of the 365 million acres in Alaska, nearly 220 million are owned by the feds, or about 60 percent of the state.

In Nevada, the feds control about 56 million acres, 81 percent of the state. In Utah, the feds control 63 percent of the state; Washington, 27 percent; New Mexico, 29 percent; Montana, 29 percent; Wyoming, 48 percent; Oregon, 26 percent; Arizona, 41 percent; California, 40 percent; Colorado, 35 percent; and Idaho, 61 percent.

Across the rest of the nation, the feds control 11.8 percent of South Carolina and 10 percent of Michigan, but only 1.9 percent of Texas, 1.2 percent of Kansas, 1.1 percent of Maine and 0.8 percent of New York.

The CRS report noted the conflict over land is nearly as long as the nation’s history.

“During the 19th century, many laws encouraged settlement of the West through federal land disposal,” the agency said, a major factor in the control Washington now possesses.

“The formation of the U.S. federal government was particularly influenced by the struggle for control over what were then known as the ‘western’ lands – the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River that were claimed by the original colonies. The original states reluctantly ceded the lands to the developing new government; this cession, together with granting constitutional powers to the new federal government, including the authority to regulate federal property and to create new states, played a crucial role in transforming the weak central government under the Articles of Confederation into a stronger, centralized federal government under the U.S. Constitution.”

Even then, there were two visions: “reserving some federal lands (such as for national forests and national parks) and selling or otherwise disposing of other lands to raise money or to encourage transportation, development and settlement.”

The easterners back then were “more likely to view the lands as national public property, and westerners more likely to view the lands as necessary for local use and development.”

The Homestead Act, intended to encourage Americans to populate the vast regions of the West, disposed of millions of acres of land, even while Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was being created in the late 1800s.

The report cites a change during the 20th century from the disposal and conveyance of title to private citizens to the “retention and management of the remaining federal lands.”

Congress intervened in 1976, declaring “that the remaining public domain lands generally would remain in federal ownership. This declaration of permanent federal land ownership was a significant factor in what because known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, an effort that started in the late 1970s to provide state or local control over federal land and management decisions.”

“Eleven states each have more than 10 million acres managed [by Washington] within their borders. All 11 states where the federal government owns the most land are located in the West. … Management of these lands is often controversial, especially in states where the federal government is a predominant or majority landholder and where competing and conflicting uses of the lands are at issue.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation’s Burling said there were few significant conflicts until the Taylor Grazing Act about 80 years ago was adopted and Washington started cracking down on ranchers’ access to water,  land, foraging and other requirements for the ranching industry.

Many ranchers say the attitude of Washington is that ranching is a leftover from a bygone era, and the more quickly it is eliminated the better. Burling said the low number of ranchers still operating in some areas supports that perception.

“It’s quite clear that the federal government to some degree, some people, think it was a mistake when the ranchers were allowed to settle the West in the first place,” he said.

He said ranchers have been accused by the government of misusing water rights and accessing grazing lands to which they are not entitled.

The government, meanwhile, has been accused of depriving ranchers of their rights, mismanaging lands and assets such as water and confiscating cattle.

Then, Burling said, the green groupies moved in and posting a slogan “Cattle free by ’93.'”.

However, if done correctly, ranching “has environmental benefits,” he said.

The CRS report said some lawmakers have expressed interest in selling federal lands to balance the budget or at least reduce the deficit.

The “FY2012 Budget of the United States: Analytical Perspectives” estimated the value of all federal lands in 2010 at $408 billion, CRS said, not including property taxes that would be assessed on the value.

“Debates also encompass whether federal lands should be managed primarily to emphasize benefits nationally or for the localities and states where the lands are located,” CRS said. “National benefits can include using lands to produce wood products for housing or energy from traditional (oil, gas, coal) and alternative/renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass). Other national benefits might encompass clean water for downstream uses; biodiversity for ecological resilience and adaptability; the wild animals and wild places for the human spirit,” the CRS said.

Local benefits include livestock grazing, timber, skiing and tourism.

“At some levels, the many uses and values can generally be compatible. However, as demands on the federal lands have risen, the conflicts among uses and values have escalated,” the report said.

Cliven Bundy’s fight with the federal government in Nevada two years ago ended peacefully when the federal government withdrew threats to confiscate his property in a conflict over grazing fees.

“Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare Is Becoming Our Reality” chronicles how America has arrived at the point of being a de facto police state, and what led to an out-of-control government that increasingly ignores the Constitution. Order today!


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