Our former Heritage Foundation colleague Theodora Dowling (intern, fall 2008) comes from a family that has been ranching in Northern California for six generations. She has worked for both the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Below, she gives us a good summary of the land management problems in the West that are at the center of the dispute between rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management:
Katie bar the door. And we ranchers thought we had become irrelevant to the American public. Now we have been catapulted into the national headlines. The standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and Cliven Bundy over his family’s grazing rights has been gut-wrenching, yet I’m excited—almost electrified. Since college graduation, I have spent most of the last five years in Washington, D.C., fighting for ranchers’ property rights. Now I’m back home on the ranch in Northern California, writing for livestock publications—admittedly preaching to the choir. I’ve always wondered what would happen if the whole country found out that the western ranching industry is on the front lines, fighting for the principles that make our country great.
There are 22,000 ranching families here in the West who hold private grazing rights on land managed by the federal government. It’s no small wonder: The federal government claims ownership to half of the landmass in the 11 contiguous western states. Forty percent of the western beef cow herd and half of the nation’s sheep spend some time on public lands.
It wasn’t always “federal land”: Ranchers started settling and grazing livestock there hundreds of years ago, long before the federal land management agencies came on the scene. But, unlike for the lands farther east, laws were never passed to give ranchers ownership of all the land that was necessary to run viable ranches in the arid West. Instead, they obtained ownership of base property, and the rest of the land was declared “public.” Ranchers who historically grazed those public lands were allocated grazing rights there. Statute requires that they pay a fee to exercise those grazing rights. These grazing rights constitute real property interests and, in many cases, are of great value (a fact that has not been lost on the Internal Revenue Service). They are protected by law, and are crucial to the economy and culture of thousands of western rural communities such as mine.
Many of today’s western ranching families have stayed on the ranches that pre-date the federal agencies. They are independent, productive people. They use their property and their labor to create wealth and feed the world. They don’t ask for handouts—they feed the hungry.
These families define “sustainable.” They know and love the land they care for. They make water sources and quality forage available to wildlife. They prevent wildfires and protect watersheds. And most of them want to pass the property, the grazing rights, and the traditions down to their kids. Yep, I’d say “sustainable” is just the word.
But after all these generations, a growing, tangled mass of environmental laws and regulations on public lands are pulling many ranch families under. Especially since the 1970s, an alphabet soup of land management laws has been enacted. Layers upon layers of regulations have been cranked out by the federal agencies, and more are on the horizon. Every management action on public land, such as a grazing permit renewal or a timber contract, now requires extensive analysis and review by federal botanists, biologists, and archeologists. All of this analysis and process provides ripe opportunities for radical anti-agriculture groups to litigate. Rural communities and ecosystems have suffered because of it.
I love the first of the eight principles of the American Conservation Ethic (published in 2012 by The Heritage Foundation): “People are the most important, unique, and precious resource.” Cliven Bundy’s neighbors were forced off of their ranges because a tortoise that lived there was listed under the Endangered Species Act. (Bundy would have been forced off too, had he done what he was told; now it appears he’s likely to go out of business, too.) The federal government made the dubious claim that cattle are a threat to desert tortoises. Even if we were to accept this claim as fact, should we also accept the premise that tortoises are more important than the families that depended on those cattle for their living?
Such cases, where wildlife take precedence over ranching families, are common. Meanwhile, the focus on protection of wildlife over people is a false dichotomy. Putting ranchers out of business does great harm to ecosystems. Tangled, overgrown forests make for poor habitat and unhealthy watersheds. Private ranch lands that go out of business are often subdivided, chopping up the landscape wildlife depend on.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at the failures of the federal government—which lacks both agility and generational knowledge—to manage the land properly. The government’s ineptitude at management is reportedly what led Bundy to stop paying his grazing fees.
Bundy broke the law and acted in contempt of court. As a conservative who believes in the rule of law, this approach doesn’t strike me as the best way to fight for one’s rights or for the great principles that are at the core of our nation. But as my mama pointed out, history is rife with examples of people who’ve obeyed the rules of their nation to a very destructive end. Surely the “rule of law” can’t be defined as “citizens following all regulations put forth by their government, no matter how destructive.” Rather than join the ranks in the welfare lines, Bundy broke the law in order to remain a productive citizen. I suppose there are worse offenses.