Drought and desperadoes in the New Old West

Posted by Christine, April 19, 2014

David Helvarg on the latest Wild West stand-off in The Progressive:

Cliven Bundy, whose family’s been ranching in Bunkerville near Las Vegas since 1877 thanks to the federal Homestead Act and whose hundreds of supporters, including armed supporters, recently won a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) along Highway 15 in southern Nevada, doesn’t look like Bill Murray, but his scene strongly reminds me of Groundhog Day.

When he tells Fox News that sheriffs across the country need to disarm federal agents and tells Glenn Beck that the federal government does not own public lands in Nevada because they belong to the State; when gun toting Militia members, States Rights activists and Tea Party supporters take up sniper positions on an overpass or show off their rifles, flags and quarter horses to the local TV; when the BLM releases 400 cattle they’ve rounded up; when Bundy reclaims the cattle he’s refused to pay a million dollars in federal grazing fees for (unlike thousands of other ranchers, the Newmont Mining Corporation, the Mormon Church, and other permit holders); when he also refuses to pay fines for grazing them and 500 more cows on protected desert tortoise habitat; when he defies federal court orders going back to 1998 and gets the backhanded support of Nevada’s governor, Congressional delegation and other Western politicians, I find one thing indisputable: Whether you see Bundy as an Old West Icon or a welfare cheat (or both), it’s all been said and done before, largely because it works.

Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles may be an apt description of Nevada’s bone-dry, mineral-rich landscape. With 87 percent of its land owned by the U.S. government, it is both the most federalized and one of the most urban states, with close to 90 percent of its population located either in Las Vegas or Reno-Carson City.

With its late-arriving Anglo frontier culture–including guns, legalized gambling and prostitution, the 1872 mining law that allows transnational mining companies to prosper and federally subsidized water and grazing permits–it’s created a rural system that, in the words of The Economist, has “tempered rugged individualism with socialist infrastructure.”

The reality is some 27,000 federal grazing permits under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 cost about one third to one sixth that of state or private land grazing permits (unless, like Bundy, you refuse to pay anything).  A 2012 Congressional Research Office report found that taxpayers lose $115 million a year on the Federal Lands Grazing program.

Still, the cowboy ranchers and rural land barons of Nevada have never been comfortable with even minimal restrictions on “their” land and water rights, often treating U.S. Range managers from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service as if they were disrespectful ranch hands in need of a whipping.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my employees,” Jim Nelson, Forest Service district manager for Nevada, recently told the Washington Post. “They can’t go to church in these communities without having someone say something. Their kids are harassed in school. Stores and restaurants are not serving them.”

Teddy Roosevelt was the first Fed to get into a confrontation with Western “boomers,” including stockmen, timber barons and miners, when he created national parks and national forests and in 1906 imposed the first fees for cattle and sheep grazing in those national forests.

“Whoever takes public property for private profit should pay for what he gets,” he insisted to howls of protest from the boomers and occasional protest arsons where public forests proved inconvenient for timber theft.  One Western newspaper called him a dictator and complained that if he “continued to create reserves there would be little ground left to bury folks on.”

Later in the 1970s and early ’80s Nevada became the birthplace of what would be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, a much ballyhooed and yippie-yi-yo-ed attempt  (actually the fourth of the 2Oth century) to transfer control of western lands from the federal government to state authorities.  Nevada Congressman James Santini went on television to complain that since passage of the mildly environmental Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, it had become impossible for ranchers to work with the BLM (neglecting to mention he had voted for the act).

Oddly, the Sagebrush Rebellion was co-opted by Ronald Reagan’s famously anti-enviro first Secretary of Interior James Watt.  Watt and the newly influential D.C. based Heritage Foundation (that would also help drive Reagan’s Central American policy of intervention) were interested in a more radical approach – privatizing public lands in the West.  That, however, proved to be a nonstarter for Congress and the real-estate industry (which didn’t want that much land being dumped on the open market), and so the Sagebrush Rebels were abandoned by their friends in D.C.

Nevada then became a stronghold of the Wise Use rebellion of the late 1980s and early ’90s that got going when Reagan left office. Rightwing activists and mining, timber and beef industries  feared President Bush might be telling the truth when he declared he would be “the environmental President.”

Following their 1988 founding meeting in Reno, Nevada Wise Use issued an agenda that included opening all public lands “including wilderness and national parks” to mining and energy development.  One of its more effective and intimidating groups was “People for the West” that received millions of dollars from mining companies looking to fight reform of the 1872 federal mining law and claiming that environmental preservationists were a threat to the life and livelihood of the West.

Over a quarter century later there’s still been no reform of the Act, and South African, Canadian and other massive open pit gold mine operators I’ve visited in Nevada can still claim gold, silver and uranium lands at 19th century prices of $2.50 to $5.00 an acre.  Under the law they are also able to extract $2-$3 billion a year from these public lands without paying any royalties (unlike oil and gas companies, which have to).

Of course one lesson of Wise Use has been to practice distraction strategies that focus on “farmers versus fish” or “spotted owls versus jobs” or ranchers and rural “culture,” rather than the transnational industries paying their freight.

The County Supremacy movement arm of Wise Use argued that county sheriffs had the right to arrest federal land managers who failed to respect the “customs and culture” of logging, mining and grazing on public lands.  The newsletter of the National Federal Lands Conference that coordinated the counties movement ran a cover story in 1994 entitled, “Why There is a Need for the Militia in America.”

By then former Secretary of Interior James Watt had told a meeting of the Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association, “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

In 1993 a bomb blew a hole in the roof of the BLM office in Reno, Nevada.  In  1994 Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver, backed by an armed posse, chased two Forest Service rangers off a road he was illegally bulldozing through the Toiyable National Forest.  “All it would have taken was for him (a ranger) to draw a weapon and fifty people with side arms would have drilled him,” Carver later bragged at a Wise Use meeting.

In 1995 pipe bombs exploded in the Reno office and then at the home of the Toiyable District Forest Service Ranger, whose wife and two teenage daughters just managed to escape injury.  Carver claimed it was “an inside job.”  Rush Limbaugh claimed “The second violent American Revolution,” was about to begin because “people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can’t do with their land.”

He and others on the right shut up for a while after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 killing 168 people and injuring over 600 in the worst case of terrorism in the U.S. prior to 9/11.

Wise Use, which by then had embraced violence directed against environmentalists and allied with anti-government Militias who shared McVeigh’s ideology, saw its industry funding and in-kind support quickly disappear.

As with the Tea Party twenty years later, its backers in mining, timber, big ag and beef cattle were looking for political cover but instead found themselves shackled to a Frankenstein monster partly of their own creation.

Even as Wise Use faded on the ground, the anti-environmental rhetoric of the Sagebrush/Wise Use movements went from a Western regional polemic to mainstream Republican rhetoric with many of the party’s pro-environmental moderates such as Senator Snowe of Maine and Rep. Gilchrest of Maryland finding themselves isolated and purged.

Some recycled Wise Use advocates and litigators also found new positions of power in the second Bush White House, including Secretary of Interior Gail Norton and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.

In the West however old styles of land-based rebellion have increasingly less impact on the economics and demographics of the region, despite new sources of support from cammo-clad anti-government activists and locals driving their horse-trailers down the interstate.

“Good morning America, good morning world, isn’t it a beautiful day in Bunkerville?” Cliven Bundy told his cheering supporters after the BLM announced it was concluding its cattle roundup and releasing his animals.

But really it was just another warm, drought-ridden day.

The Southwest’s historic and ongoing drought has become a huge drain for the West’s cattle ranchers, many of whom have had to sell off or remove their cattle from their own lands as well as public lands.

Looking at bankruptcy and possible liquidation as the climate continues to dry the arid West, some ranchers have begun working with environmentalists on a program to get the government to buy back their grazing permits and retire the land to recover from more than a century of overgrazing and dustbowls.

The Cattlemen and other trade associations oppose this.

Ten years ago the Western Battle space was between upstream Eastern Oregon farmers dependent on federal irrigation water and downstream tribes and fishermen fighting over the Klamath River.  Rush Limbaugh and others on the right called it “Sucker Fish versus Farmers,” and the Bush administration took the side of the farmers, believing they might win Oregon in the 2004 election.  About 75,000 fish died amidst angry protests and near riots like they are today in Bunkerville.

But the real story remained how salmon-dependent people downstream and upstream farmers both had to find a way to survive the West’s long-term drought.

In recent years the Klamath residents have gotten together along with the state and a power company and agreed to take down a dam on the river that will revive the fish habitat and allow for a fairer allocation of their shared waters as we all begin to adjust to the impacts of fossil-fuel fired climate change.

The same kind of collaborative solutions can be found for public lands in the West.  Of course, it would help to have some courageous national leadership that didn’t always back down, such as a Teddy Roosevelt, who once explained: “The rights of the public to the nation’s natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration.”

I don’t believe we’ll be hearing that from BLM or the White House any time soon.

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