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Cliven Bundy Cattle Standoff Is a Consequence of Illegitimate Government Claims on Land

What are we to make of the fight between Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)? The essential facts are:

  • In the 1950s, the Bundy family began grazing cattle on federal BLM lands, in accordance with BLM policies and fee structures, according to KLAS-TV. (The Bundy family maintains their ancestors obtained grazing rights in 1887.)
  • In 1989, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list[ed] the desert tortoise as an endangered species. A year later, its designation was changed to ‘threatened,’” reports the Washington Post.
  • In 1993, to “protect” the tortoise (among other things), “the Bureau of Land Management designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for strict conservation efforts”—efforts entailing “the elimination of livestock grazing” in certain areas, the Post reports. The BLM “purchased” “grazing privileges from cattle ranchers who formerly used BLM land,” but Bundy family members refused to “willingly sell their grazing privileges,” the Post reports.
  • According to various reports, the BLM initially sought to severely restrict, but not eliminate, Bundy’s grazing permits. By NBC’s account, the BLM established that Bundy’s “permission to graze his cattle on public lands would depend on tortoise sitings.” By’s account (which I’m not sure is accurate), the BLM “informed grazing permit holders like Bundy that cattle counts would need to be reduced to 150 head.” A BLM document I obtained states the following: “In 1993, some of the terms of Mr. Bundy’s grazing permit for the Bunkerville allotment [the relevant plot of land] were modified to protect the desert tortoise. Mr. Bundy did not accept the offered grazing permit and subsequently stopped paying grazing fees. The BLM then cancelled Mr. Bundy’s grazing permit but Mr. Bundy continued to graze his cattle in the Bunkerville Allotment. A portion of the Bunkerville Allotment is National Park Service (NPS) lands which BLM managed by agreement with NPS.” The government is demanding that Bundy pay sizable fines for illegally grazing his cattle.
  • Last year, the U.S. District Court of Nevada issued a ruling against Bundy, condemning his “unlawful grazing of his livestock on property owned by the United States and administered by the Department of the Interior . . . through the Bureau of Land Management.” The court authorized the forcible removal of Bundy’s cattle from BLM Land, “at Bundy’s expense.”
  • Earlier this month, federal agents, facing armed resistance by Bundy and his supporters, backed away (perhaps temporarily) from enforcing the court’s order.

The fundamental problem is that the government is unlawfully maintaining possession of the lands in question and failing to recognize legitimate property rights over those lands. As I wrote in 2012:

Regarding the Constitution, as legal scholar Rob Natelson points out in his book The Original Constitution, permanent federal land ownership for unenumerated purposes is contrary to the intent of the Constitution. Natelson points out that “Founding-Era records disclose a universal belief that most federal lands would be sold promptly.”

Because the federal government “owns” the wilderness lands in question, in practice no one truly owns them; their control is at the mercy of whatever political faction happens to be most powerful at the time. In this case, environmentalists successfully limited cattle grazing on the grounds that doing so would “help” the tortoise.

Although the method by which the federal government should convert federal wilderness lands to private ownership is a complex matter and beyond the scope of this article, that the federal government should do so is clear—by the standard of individual rights and constitutional law. The general principle is that those who develop natural resources not yet owned by other individuals have a moral right to use or transfer those resources. The government’s only proper role in this sphere is to recognize and protect people’s legitimate property claims.

What is the proper management policy for the lands in question? What is the right balance of cattle grazing, habitat preservation, recreation, and other uses? Such questions cannot be objectively answered by government or when government “owns” the property. Only individuals trading freely in a marketplace can answer such questions. If government recognized private property rights over the lands in question, as it should, the owners of the lands would decide how to use them, and there would be no legal conflict.

The Bundy affair is yet another example of the fact that rights violations are inherent in the very existence of government-owned wilderness lands and the like.


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