You’ve got two choices if you want to understand the Bundy land grab


shane

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:

  • Watch the movie Shane.

  • Read this article by Chris Clarke.

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.

Comments

  1. says

    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.

    Oh, I don’t know about that. To this day, some Michael Douglas fans tell him they went into finance precisely because they aspired to be like Gordon Gekko, the villain he played in Wall Street. Never underestimate the amorality of conservatives.

  2. cartomancer says

    This phenomenon is not new or unique to the US. The Romans had similar issues with wealthy landowners trying to monopolise the farmland of Italy during the 2nd century BC – buying, encroaching on or outright stealing land from smaller farmers and public land (ager publicus) to add to their wide estates (latifundia). Like the US, much Roman ager publicus was taken in war, from the Italian city-states they conquered during the previous two centuries, and the rich senatorial elites tended to monopolise its use. Also like the early US, slave labour made these huge estates very profitable – much more profitable than simply renting the land out to smallholders or selling it. Things came to a head in the 130s BC when the radical tribune Tiberius Gracchus proposed dividing up the ager publicus into plots for smallholders – mostly as pensions for Roman soldiers – to ease the poverty in the city of Rome. He was clubbed to death by mobs of the senators’ clients and allies. His brother Gaius tried the same thing a decade later, to similar effect. The Social War with the Italian allies of the 90s BC was in part sparked by the Roman land greed and lack of concern for the land rights of the allies. The land problem became one of the defining strains that led to the collapse of the Republic, primarily because it created vast numbers of disaffected veterans who could look to people like Caesar, Pompey and Sulla for relief, and form private armies to do their bidding rather than working towards the good of the state.

    So yes, we’ve been here many times before.

  3. laurentweppe says

    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.

    Parasitic would-be princelings.
    For all they talk about revolutions, they forget that when revolutions happen, their kind are never the leaders: their kind are the preys, the decadent aristocrats being hunted to extinction by a furious populace seeking bloody revenge

  4. petemoulton says

    “The various Bundy supporters ought to watch them and notice that they’re the ones in the black hats. With the pink dildos.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    It’s all neatly summed up in the Problem of the Commons. The capitalist solution to that problem is for one person to buy up all the land, and make everyone else work for him. If a person comes along who wants to make the whole business more efficient or sustainable, that person is then easily squelched.

  6. erichoug says

    WOW! I am now starting to see the silver lining in the Bundy Battalion’s battle of the birding bastion. They are making people who traditionally didn’t care look at federal grazing policy in more detail and what a lot of them are finding isn’t pretty.

    The above paints a picture of a large group off wealthy welfare queens throwing a tantrum until they are given, not “allowed to purchase” of course, but GIVEN at taxpayer expense public lands and funds to make them even wealthier.

    I think that what might resolve it would be if the BLM started discussing removal of all grazing rights on federal land. That way the private ranchers who aren’t asshats would call have a vested interest in convincing yallqaeda to go home. Interestingly, the two ranchers at the center of this still don’t want anything to do with them.

  7. anbheal says

    Two quick thoughts:

    1) The Open Range and Homestead laws were only Democratic in a limited sense. They only applied to white Christian men. They are roughly akin to the seemingly progressive codicil in Medicare, where your home cannot be counted in your “wealth” when you are means-tested for, say, nursing home care. In reality, what this does is protect the inheritance of rich white middle-aged kids, whose parents might otherwise need to pay for some of their dotage via a reverse mortgage. It then perpetuates the wealth gap between middle class whites and anyone who doesn’t own their home free and clear. So it was with Open Range — in fact, in the fairly good movie of that name, the “good guys” were moochers too, fattening their cattle off public lands without paying a dime for feed. Ranching, almost by definition, is a Welfare Queen profession.

    2) I think the Feds should sell a lot of this land to private interests, invest the proceeds into Green Energy or Educating Poor Kids, and then see how the Bundys like paying $18 per head to a rich guy with a lot of bigger guns, who’ll shoot them and their cattle under Stand Your Ground laws if they stray an inch onto his Libertarian property. Win-Win for all involved.

  8. laurentweppe says

    It’s all neatly summed up in the Problem of the Commons. The capitalist solution to that problem is for one person to buy up all the land, and make everyone else work for him. If a person comes along who wants to make the whole business more efficient or sustainable, that person is then easily squelched.

    You mean the feudalist solution.

  9. Jado says

    “The various Bundy supporters ought to watch them and notice that they’re the ones in the black hats.”

    I think you presume a level of self-awareness not in evidence. These are people who are taking over a facility owned by the federal government for the express purpose of “giving it back to the people”

    This is “keep the government out of my medicare” all over again, but with guns.

    Richard Pryor said it best when he helped write Blazing Saddles – “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

  10. Joshua Kosman says

    The various Bundy supporters ought to watch them and notice that they’re the ones in the black hats.