Trashing Rural America

Robert Gordon Senior Advisor, Heritage Foundation
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It looked like a modern variation of a Hollywood range-war flick. On one side stood environmentalists and federal agents demanding protection of tortoise habitat endangered by over-grazing. On the other, a rancher who insists on grazing his cattle on federal lands where his family has always grazed (while refusing to pay grazing fees), and his supporters, including some armed militia.

The confrontation between the indefensible and bigoted Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and a small army of federal law enforcement officers struck many living east of the Rockies or in West Coast cities as bizarre. It was hard to comprehend the nature of the dispute — a confusing mix of cattle, fees and fines, trespassing and tortoises. And the notion of settling the matter with guns seemed like something from an earlier century.

In reality, the showdown had little to do with tortoises. To understand what was really going on, one must understand the history of public lands use and how the Green movement and its allies in D.C. have steadily choked off the commercial use necessary to the survival of rural America.

The federal land on which Bundy had a permit to graze his cattle was not in a national park. National parks account for about 80 million acres — an area about the size of Norway. But that’s just a fraction of all federal lands.

Along with the larger land holdings of three other agencies — the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Forest Service — encompass more territory than France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and England combined. This makes for a huge federal footprint, especially in the West.

The vast majority of the federal estate was not set aside for preservation as a park but to be managed under a conservation approach that provides for economic activity. These areas are supposed to be “lands of many uses,” and allow those who produce our food, fiber, minerals and energy to tap into their natural resources of timber, minerals, energy, and grass for livestock forage.

The BLM, in fact, was created by a Truman-era reorganization that folded together two agencies, one of which was the U.S. Grazing Service. The Grazing Service was a product of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which addressed the longstanding practice of ranching on federal lands, some of which was encouraged by government.

Today, many ranchers continue to graze the federal lands their families have used for generations. They have a court-recognized private property interest in their grazing permits, which are taxed by the IRS, inheritable, and transferable with the sale of a ranch. The U.S. Court of Claims recognized that ranchers can have private rights in the federal estate following the Fed’s bullying of another Nevada rancher, Wayne Hage. Said U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Jones of that confrontation: “[T]he Government’s actions over the past two decades shocks the conscience of the Court.”

People often assume — erroneously — that all federal lands were set aside expressly for the preservation of an animal, plant, vista or other natural resource. The environmental movement has promotes this false assumption because it helps advance their goal, which is to treat the entire federal estate as a national park.

In pursuit of that agenda, the greens — abetted by allies in Congress and the land managing agencies — have steadily sought to strangle beneficial economic uses of the federal estate. Some are placed off limits by wilderness designations or restrictive land management plans. Or cumbersome National Environmental Policy Act assessments or Endangered Species Act challenges are launched to thwart use. Swath by swath, the greens are blanketing the West with “Human — Keep Out” signs.

It’s killing rural economic activity. Over the last 50 years, grazing on public lands, which is measured in AUMs (the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf for a month), has plummeted from 18.2 million AUMs to 7.9 million AUMs. Between 2009 and 2013, as crude oil and natural gas production surged on non-federal lands, it fell — by 6 and 28 percent, respectively — on federal lands. Timber harvesting on public lands has fallen from 12 billion board feet in the Reagan years to under 3 billion board feet in FY 2013. The statistics for miners on public lands are equally grim.

The environmental movement often uses “flagship species” to strangle economic activity. The spotted owl, for example, was used to close off huge tracts of federal timberland. As Andy Stahl of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund put it: “thank goodness the spotted owl evolved in the Northwest, for if it hadn’t we’d have to genetically engineer it. It’s a perfect species to use as a surrogate.”

The owl was weaponized through the Endangered Species Act. Small wonder that many Western ranchers now see desert tortoises as crawling legal land mines.

The irony, of course, is that rural Americans actually walk the walk unlike most professional environmental activists who seek to shut them down. Ranchers, farmers, loggers and miners actually live in rural communities and spend their days in the desert, mountains, forest, pasture and on the range. They enjoy the hoot of the owl or the flash of a lizard skittering across their path. It’s part of why they choose to stay in the boondocks — a partial trade-off for foregoing the comforts of urban life. It’s hard for them to swallow the environmental self-righteousness of people paid to yammer on about “saving family farms” from their stylish concrete and glass edifices.

Bundy is as far from a sympathetic martyr as his Nevada ranch is to Washington’s halls of power. Focusing on his indefensible and ugly behavior is, however, to miss the big point — that cruel policies are destroying rural economic activity and with it rural America.

Robert Gordon is Senior Advisor for Strategic Outreach for The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).