The Real Issue In The Cliven Bundy Dispute: Why Are The Feds In The Land-Leasing Business?

Joanne Butler Contributor
Font Size:

Thanks to Cliven Bundy, there’s a song that’s been rattling around in my brain non-stop: “Razzle Dazzle Them” from the musical Chicago. No, it’s not Richard Gere’s wimpy movie rendition in my mind, but Jerry’s Orbach’s con brio delivery from the Broadway original. But the bottom line of Fred Ebb’s lyrics is the same: “Razzle dazzle them, and they’ll never catch wise.”

And razzle-dazzle is exactly what Mr. Bundy has done. Never mind he’s had his day (days, actually) in federal court and lost. He channeled his inner Billy Flynn’(the sharp lawyer in Chicago) and the crowd went wild.

The upside to all this is that Bundy has inadvertently performed a public service: informing the nation on how the federal government is hugely and directly involved in the commercial land-leasing business. This goes beyond the 247 million acres of federal land managed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but also 190 million National Forest tracts managed by USDA’s Forest Service.

People often confuse National Forests with National Parks (managed by the Interior Department), as both provide recreational opportunities. The big difference is the National Parks must remain pristine, while USDA leases its National Forest property to timber industry firms.

BLM, meanwhile, leases land to ranchers via grazing fees (the root issue of Bundy’s dispute). I have visited some of these BLM ranches and they are located in desolate country – not conducive for constructing trophy vacation homes. Some ranchers I met complained about the BLM fees, others just accepted them as a cost of doing business.

Why does the federal government own 247 million acres of BLM land? First, remember that most of this land is in the West, and was acquired by the United States as its frontier expanded. Second, when you see the land, you realize that as settlers moved across the West back in the 1800s, it was obvious it was worthless for homesteading – poor soil, little available water, etc. Thus, the land nobody wanted was and remained federal property.

Later, as incomes rose back East and people developed a taste for beef and the desire to purchase woolen garments, beef and sheep ranching took hold in the West.  However, the poor quality of the western federal lands meant that ranchers needed access to very large tracts for their animals to thrive.

Although some in Congress had tried and failed to pass legislation to exert some control over these lands, the game changed when the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s swept over the western ranges.  As a result, Congressman Edward Taylor (D-CO) sponsored the Taylor Grazing Act, enacted in 1934.

The law gave the Interior Department the right to issue permits or leases for grazing within specified districts. Under the Act (as amended) the Department can issue free subsistence grazing permits, under certain conditions.

For other BLM lands, the Department issues leases for specified time periods, or permits which last for ten years (but are renewable). However, in either case the rancher must pay a fee based on the number of cattle or sheep grazing on the land per month. The BLM can also restrict grazing on certain tracts to protect endangered species.

Thus, the crux of Mr. Bundy’s argument is that his family, not the BLM, owns the land, and his ownership goes back to the days of the Mormon pioneers. Therefore he claims he does not have to pay (and has not paid) grazing fees. He’s also taken issue with the BLM’s order not to graze on land involving the habitat of an endangered turtle.

I realize that some are siding with Mr. Bundy over ‘liberty’ issues, but I hearken to the old saying, “You take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding.” If you’re grazing on BLM land, then BLM calls the shots. If you, the rancher, disagree with what BLM is doing, you take the issue to your local ranchers association – they get paid to help ranchers in these situations.

Interestingly, Mr. Bundy’s local association, the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, has taken a nuanced view of his problems. They expressed concern about excessive federal regulations, and stated there was no scientific proof that cattle grazing had “historically harmed” the endangered turtles. While the Association states it “sympathizes with Mr. Bundy’s dilemma” (an excellent example of wordsmithing) it also expresses its support for the rule of law and notes that Bundy’s case was adjudicated by the federal courts.

For example, in 1998 a federal district judge found that the BLM, not Bundy’s family, owned the land in dispute.  The judge noted that Bundy’s family hadn’t begun ranching on BLM land until about 1954 (twenty years after the 1934 Taylor Act).

As a fiscally conservative economist, I have to ask: why is the federal government involved in the business leasing of ranch and timber land? What if you had a relative who was going further and further into debt (let’s call him Uncle Sam) and you knew he also owned millions of acres of land? Might you be tempted to say, ‘hey Uncle, how about selling some of that land?’

Or as Margaret Thatcher would have put it, why not privatize this? Politically, this could be a heavy lift, especially for rancher-friendly Republicans.

Since the 1930s, ranchers have enjoyed a form of rent control on federal lands. Some might call it an entitlement. According to Laurence Clement of Kansas State University the fees ranchers pay for grazing rights may be lower than their market value.

For example, a 2005 GAO report on the topic (the most recent I could find) stated that grazing fees charged by BLM and USDA’s Forest Service fell short of their expenditures by $114 million in fiscal year 2004.  It also found the two agencies’ grazing fees had fallen by 40 percent during the 1980-2004 period, while private grazing fees had increased by 78 percent.

Looking at page 36 of Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget outline for fiscal year 2015, he recommends that BLM help reduce the budget deficit by sending to the U.S. Treasury 70 percent of its proceeds (net of expenses) from land sales, instead of its current practice of using all proceeds to purchase other parcels.

But Ryan doesn’t discuss how land sales could be increased (which would subject some ranchers to higher private grazing fees), nor does he examine how federal grazing fees could be recalculated to further reduce the deficit. As I said, it’s a heavy lift for Republicans, no matter how devoted their claims to the causes of less government and debt reduction.

Thus, as Cliven Bundy’s razzle-dazzle fades, our national debt continues to grow. Will Republicans have the nerve to go after the really hard stuff (e.g., subsidies Republicans like) to reduce our debt? Will we ever see Senator Ted Cruz shouting from Senate floor for the need to sell off more BLM land and increase grazing fees? Or has the age of miracles truly passed?

By the way, Mr. Bundy’s reference to his Mormon pioneer ancestors makes me wonder if he too is not a Mormon. If so, he must not have been listening in 2006 when the (late) president of the church, Gordon Hinckley, said, “I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.” Perhaps his spiritual brothers and sisters at the Mormon church in Harlem (yes, there is one and it’s growing) will charitably show you the error of his ways.