This Land Is Whose Land?

Property rights activists are irate that the federal government has seized the cattle of a Southern Nevada rancher who has allowed his herd to graze on Bureau of Land Management lands. Back in 1993, the feds limited rancher Cliven Bundy to 150 animals in order to protect the desert tortoise. He responded that his family began grazing the area decades before the BLM was even formed in 1935. In protest, he stopped paying grazing fees and continued to graze 500 or more (by some accounts as many as 1,000) cattle on the land.

Bundy has lost several court cases since then and the BLM says he owes $300,000 in grazing fees. More than two decades after the dispute began, the agency finally sent armed agents in to remove the offending cattle. In the course of doing so, they arrested–and apparently roughly treated–Bundy’s son for stepping off an area the feds had set aside as a “free speech area” in order to videotape the federal action.

Nevada, of course, is ground zero for the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement the began in the 1970s promoting privatization of federal lands. There’s a good reason for that: something like 89 percent of all the land in Nevada is federal, which definitely impedes growth in the state. On the other hand, rancher Bundy’s pre-1995 grazing allotment covered nearly 160,000 acres, suggesting the land must be pretty poor quality (at least for cattle grazing) to handle just a few hundred cattle.

There are two views of federal land privatization within the libertarian movement. One is that the federal government is a bad manager, so it is imperative that land be privatized even if means giving it away. For some reason, those who have historically used the land supposedly should be first in line to get it. (Does that mean I get the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness?)

The second view is that the federal government is going broke, and land should be sold to the highest bidder in order to help save social security or otherwise reduce the federal debt. The feds have about 600 million acres; at $2,000 an acre, they are worth well over a trillion dollars. (But most probably aren’t worth $2,000 an acre.) Bundy probably doesn’t want to have to bid against environmental groups who might want the land for the desert tortoise, but if they are willing to bid more than him, they could probably save the tortoise and other endangered species a lot more easily than what they are doing today.

The Antiplanner’s view doesn’t fit the libertarian mold. I start out viewing federal lands as property, just like any other property. If Cliven Bundy wants to use the land–or a timber company, or a mineral company, or the Sierra Club–they should pay fair market value to the rest of Americans who share ownership of that land.

Second, I ask what arrangements would lead to the best management of these lands for the people who share ownership of them. In some cases, selling the land might make sense. But selling federal land doesn’t guarantee an end to subsidies or poor management. The federal government spends roughly $10 billion a year subsidizing 600 million acres of federal land, but it spends roughly $20 billion a year subsidizing just 400 million acres of agricultural crop lands. That means subsidies to private farm lands are roughly three times as much, per acre, as subsidies to federal lands.

Instead of privatizing the lands, I’ve proposed to turn federal lands into fiduciary trusts and to fund them exclusively out of a share of their own revenues. Some of their revenues should also go to the U.S. Treasury to compensate the owners for all the money they’ve put into the lands over the past century.

In any case, I don’t have much sympathy for the Bundys or anyone else who says that, because their ancestors used federal lands, they have some kind of inherent right to continue to use them forever. If Bundy was upset with the 1993 desert tortoise decision, he should have continued to pay his fees, perhaps putting them in escrow the way rent strikers have done in the past.

I also don’t have much sympathy for federal officials who think they can confine people to “free-speech areas.” Bundy’s son didn’t deserve to be beaten, and federal agencies have a bad habit of taking a heavy-handed approach to disputes such as this one. But I can imagine they are frustrated over Bundy’s refusal to not only pay fees but to reduce his cattle numbers despite losing at least three different court cases. Property rights advocates who support Bundy are fighting the wrong battle.


6 thoughts on “This Land Is Whose Land?

  1. Fred_Z

    With thanks to Mark Steyn:

    “In 1217, King Henry III signed the Charter of the Forest, which despite various amendments and replacement statutes remained in force in Britain for some three-quarters of a millennium, until the early Seventies. If Magna Carta is a landmark in its concept of individual rights, the Forest Charter played an equivalent role in advancing the concept of the commons, the public space. Repealing various restrictions by his predecessors, Henry III opened the royal forests to the freemen of England, granted extensive grazing and hunting rights, and eliminated the somewhat severe penalty of death for taking the king’s venison. The [National Park Service] have not yet fried anyone for taking King Barack’s deer, but it is somewhat sobering to reflect that an English peasant enjoyed more freedom on the sovereign’s land in the 13th century than a freeborn American does on “the people’s land” in the 21st century.”

  2. Meso

    A big problem with federal ownership of huge percentages of western land is that they tend to keep ratcheting up the restrictions on the use of that land. Mining gets prohibited by simple Administration decree. Large areas are off limits to anyone not healthy enough to hike miles into the wilderness.

    There is not good reason that huge amounts of land are federal. It’s history – the feds demanded it in order for the states to come into the union. I’d suggest that we have a roughly equal percentage of federally owned land in all states.

    We get really tired of easterners and coastal liberals telling the rest of us how our land should be used.

  3. Sandy Teal

    I understand why the Antiplanner wants to be philosophically consistent, but the undeniable history of the terrible problems of rich absentee landlords of large tacks is legend…….. wait for it…….. ary.

  4. Frank

    “Large areas are off limits to anyone not healthy enough to hike miles into the wilderness.”

    That is not a restriction imposed by the feds.

    “the feds demanded it [land] in order for the states to come into the union.”

    Evidence, please.

  5. JOHN1000

    To treat all states fairly, the federal government should equalize land grabs and take over all of the islands and seacoasts along the northeast for no compensation.

    Then all the wealthy progressives, politicians and talking heads on CNN, CBS, NPR etc would no longer have their mansions on the water (rebuilt by us every time there is a storm). And the President would take his vacations on federal land (and share it with his “inferiors”) rather than hanging out on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard with his wealthy cronies. Applies also to Kerry and the Kennedy’s.

    Sounds outrageous – of course it is. But no more outrageous than the current state of affairs in western states and Alaska.

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