This is a very familiar situation, and if you want to puzzle out what’s actually going on, I recommend you do one or both of these things:
Maybe you’ve already seen Shane, so I’ll just refresh your memory. A cattle baron tries to take over huge tracts of land by driving out settlers and small farmers; Jack Palance is the bad guy, working for the greedy cattlemen, terrorizing the farmers, who have Alan Ladd defending them. It’s the old range war story that has driven a lot of Westerns. You could also watch Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, or any of dozens of movies with that theme. Why, just last night I watched a Danish Western, The Salvation, which recycled that story: Mads Mikkelsen is the Danish settler in America, who just wants to build a little farm with his family, when he is victimized by a brutal campaign to destroy a town so rich people can seize the oil-rich lands there (this, of course, prompts prolonged violence, unfortunately, but that’s another familiar trope in these movies).
It happened and is happening all across the West. There are all these open spaces, and a few people decide that they own ALL of it, and that no one else gets to use it. Their demands are usually couched in terms of privatizing public lands, so our Libertarian-leaning compatriots just love it. Also loving it are the few rich beneficiaries of the heavily subsidized use of public lands.
Or instead of a fictionalized old movie, you could read Clarke’s article for the non-fictional details.
The history of public lands in the U.S. is a complex one, tainted from the outset by the uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of public lands in the U.S. were obtained as spoils in a war of genocide. Some lands were stolen outright, some gained through treaties the Natives signed under duress. Others were bought from countries that obtained them in like fashion. That Original Sin casts a pall over all discussions of public land management in the U.S., and wrangling between tribes and feds over land continues to this day, though usually in conference rooms and courtrooms rather than on the field of battle.
But what the Malheur militia and their fellow travelers won’t tell you is that for close to a century after the U.S. federal government first went into the real estate business, it couldn’t give land away fast enough.
The popular, romantic conception of this massive giveaway centers around laws like the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Homestead Act and similar laws, Americans could claim a piece of public land, usually a “quarter-section” of 160 acres, and gain title after five years of residence and improvements. If you ignore where the land came from in the first place, laws like the Homestead Act were admirable in their democratic intent.
And the ultraconservatives of the 19th Century — Bundy’s predecessors — opposed the Homestead Act. They had in mind an aristocratic West, where slaveholders could greatly expand their existing empires. A grassroots system of land distribution would have impeded their visions of plantations on the Colorado, the Arkansas, the San Joaquin and the Rio Grande. It wasn’t until Secession, and the departure of pro-slavery senators from Washington, that the Homestead Act was able to make it to Lincoln’s desk.
This action is basically an act of robbery by gangs of thieves. They aren’t out there cutting fences because they’re socialists who think the land belongs to everyone: they want to take a carefully managed public preserve and turn it into a grazing lot to be exploited by a few ranchers, who will then profit mightily from the heavily subsidized system.
It’s long been a truism that no industrial sector has been so coddled, with so little economic benefit in return, as public lands livestock grazers. The entire public lands ranching industry generates just three percent of the beef produced in the U.S., and accounts for less than one percent of either jobs or income even in ranch-heavy states like Wyoming and Montana.
That’s despite significant federal subsidies. In 2016, it costs $1.69 a month to graze a cow and calf on BLM or Forest Service lands. That’s somewhere around a sixth of what it costs the Feds to administer the grazing program, and as little as a tenth what ranchers pay for their livestock to graze on private lands.
The Federal government also spends an undisclosed amount — certainly well into the millions of dollars each year — on killing predators ranchers fear may be targeting their livestock, said campaign being administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division.
And that’s not counting the money we spend to repair landscapes, control invasive plants spread by livestock, fight fires sparked by those invasive species, and even to convene years-long collaboration sessions on the sage grouse instead of inconveniencing ranchers by just listing the species as endangered.
It’s worth noting that this long-term practice of bending over backwards to placate public lands ranchers exists despite the reason any grazing restrictions on public lands were ever enacted in the first place. In the 1890s, when Congress created the Forest Reserves that would eventually become our National Forests, they did so as an express reaction to an orgy of both unsustainable logging and rampant overgrazing on those lands. In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act require the Secretary of the Interior “to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing.”
Add another movie to your list. Die Hard, with the late great Alan Rickman. Remember how Rickman’s character, Hans Gruber, fooled the police by pretending to be a politically motivated radical when he was actually there to steal a fortune? That’s the Bundy crew, every one of them.
When you watch those movies, you will notice one very important, very specific fact about them: Rickman and Palance are the bad guys. The various Bundy supporters ought to watch them and notice that they’re the ones in the black hats.