Last week, long standing tensions between a Nevada rancher and the Bureau of Land Management began to escalate toward a good old fashioned ‘Merican dust-up. Like Gary Cooper facing down the gang of outlaws in High Noon, rancher Cliven Bundy stood alone to defend life and liberty and against the forces of evil and exploitation.
First, a little history.
Cliven Bundy is the rancher at the epicentre of the fracas. According to Cliven Bundy, in the latter half of the 19th century a group of Latter Day Saints (Bundy’s progenitors included) settled parts of the inter-mountain west. It would seem this was done under the divine instruction and direct supervision of God, the infinite and almighty Creator of the Universe and ghost writer of the United States Constitution. Thanks to divine dispensation, Bundy’s ancestors have been grazing cattle on a sizable swath of the Nevada desert since the 1870s, peaceably and industriously carving an honest way of life out of the unforgiving high desert landscape.
Cliven Bundy – Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Things changed when the Bureau of Land Management, a generally beneficial government agency that Bundy and his supporters apparently believe to be a tyrannical cabal of radical communists, decided to collect the land use fees Bundy had courageously neglected to pay for two decades. A quick internet search reveals that the mission of this shadowy government agency is to:
“manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield.”
Nefarious. I quake in fear for the future of American liberty. Under the blasphemous pretense that natural resources are somehow perishable and ecosystems fragile, the BLM works to erode the freedoms of hard-working Americans by forcing “sustainable” management strategies down the public’s throat. These corrupt liberal parasites believe that some lands represent a type of public good. Implicit in this is the suggestion that wanton, short-sighted exploitation of landscapes, ecosystems, and the resources they encompass is somehow unethical.
Since 1993, Bundy has refused to pay the BLM for the right to graze his 900 cattle on 600,000 acres of public property. That is, he has refused to pay for access to lands held in the public trust and managed by the federal government. Here, it is worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of land management with respect to grazing rights. In the 19th century, the U.S. government actively encouraged Euro-American settlement of the Western Frontier. According to the Homestead Act of 1862, individuals who filed an application, noticeably “improved” a portion of land over a five year period of occupation, and filed for a deed could become the proud owners of a given allotment of acreage. Implicit in the act itself is the notion that the federal government owns the land. Things were dandy until it became apparent that unregulated land use (such as grazing) damages the landscape, harming plants, soils, streams, springs, and animals. This provided the impetus for the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which led to subsequent improvements in range land productivity and watershed quality. With the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the BLM’s mission expanded to include the protection of resources additional to the common interests of cattle ranchers. Since then, the BLM has worked to preserve things like riparian ecosystems and protect sensitive species of plants and animals.
Presumably, Bundy and his family had been paying lease fees to the BLM since 1934. He inexplicably (in terms that conform to any known criteria of logic, reason, or historical precedent, anyway) ceased payments in 1993. Since then, he has been grazing his cattle on public lands for free. The ecosystem in which Bundy’s cattle graze is not well adapted to their generalist grazing strategy. Consequently, cattle grazing results in some amount of passive (but non-negligible) damage to the environment. Ranchers like Bundy pay the BLM for access to public lands as a way to offset the environmental cost of grazing. So for over twenty years, Bundy has been engaged in the destruction of public property – a resource held in trust for the enjoyment and use of all Americans and the creatures with which we share the land, present and future – without paying into the trust that supports sustainable management. Put more simply, Bundy hasn’t paid his rent in 20 years. Last week, his overly lenient landlords began eviction proceedings.
Depending on who you ask, Bundy owes between $300,000 (if you ask economist Cliven Bundy, PhD) and $1,100,000 (if you ask the BLM) in back rent. In order to recoup a little of their costs, the BLM hired wranglers to round up some of Bundy’s cattle. Here, Bundy drew a line in the sand. For years, Bundy and his family have struggled under the yoke of tyranny, asked to pay $1.35 per cow per month to graze on public lands. That’s right. Bundy was asked to pay that fee. Being the civil rights hero that he his, Cliven Bundy said no. Yet the government continued to ask. Bastards.
Having seen the kernel of truth at the heart of the ancient proverb, “shit in your left hand and hope into your right and see what fills up faster”, the BLM, apparently comprised entirely of timid apologists, decided to take action. This lead to some serious public outrage, inspiring a bunch of militant, right-wing nut jobs to grab their AR-15s and their fourth grade understandings of U.S. history and head for Bunkerville, Nevada.
John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
Under mounting public pressure (read: mounting pressure from ring-wing militants) and the growing threat of needless violence, the BLM backed down, capitulating to a man who says his personal interests take precedent over the interests of anyone and everything that might have some stake in the condition of that land, now or in the future. Contrary to standard U.S. policy, they also gave in to the demands of terrorists. That’s right. I said terrorists. Men and women who used the threat of violence and the fear it evokes to get their way. Terrorists. Ignorant yokels whose inscrutable sense of resentment and persecution has turned them into an active menace to the smooth and peaceful operation of a government agency whose work can – at the very worst – be considered innocuous.
In the final analysis, this will probably turn out to be a very small story. A footnote to a footnote in United States history. But it is a microcosm of the ignorance, paranoia, and selfishness festering in the minds of many Americans. As such, it should serve as a forceful lesson. A mob estimated to number somewhere around a thousand forced the U.S. government to allow a man to continue to break the law. That’s not to say the government should have continued to press the matter. Surely that would have lead to some backwoods jackass with an itchy trigger finger sparking a violent, bloody confrontation. I don’t think this affair would have been worth losing lives over. However, the fact that people are hailing Bundy as a hero is remarkable in all the worst ways. It is a position rooted in abject ignorance and the sort of livid, animal paranoia bred by a total blindness to differing opinions and the various methods by which information can be critically evaluated. It is the product of swaggering confidence, unmoored of sensibility, circumspection, incredulity, and civility.
By and large, dissenting opinions are good for democracy. I can live in a country where people disagree on how much influence government should have on the market, or whether or not a certain interpretation of the law is in line with the strictures of the U.S. constitutions. Civil, intelligent people can and do disagree. But the process of constructive debate and bipartisan compromise breaks down when a significant chunk of the population holds opinions justified only by their imaginations. The militants who gathered over the past few days in Nevada were there to defend a nation and a constitution they’d conjured out of thin air. And they were willing to hurt people to do so.
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