The tea party and most Republicans, it seems, are not saddling up to join the Nevada range war.
Rancher Cliven Bundy’s fight with the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over grazing fees came to a head last week when federal agents “gathered” – that’s the bureaucratic term for “rounded up” – some 400 head of Mr. Bundy’s cows.
The BLM backed off when a crowd of Bundy’s supporters showed up, many on horseback and many displaying firearms, including militia types brandishing assault-style rifles.
The imagery seemed to have been perfect for those opposed to what they consider to be government over-reach – including many who count themselves members of the tea party movement as well as the most conservative Republican officials. Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Glenn Beck thumped the drum of controversy.
But so far, national tea party and Republican organizations haven’t made it a big issue.
“If they want to rally voters against big government, they already have Obamacare for that,” observes David Nather at Politico.com. The Affordable Care Act – a key GOP talking point in the upcoming midterm elections – impacts virtually every American, he points out.
Grazing fees in the rural West, however, affect a relative handful of ranchers (some 18,000, according to the BLM). They may grumble about it, but they pay the fee and get on with the business of raising beef cattle.
(Grazing fees are assessed per “animal unit month” or AUM, the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. The grazing fee for 2014, based on market conditions, is $1.35 per AUM – the lowest it can be set under federal law.)
While many of those who showed up in support of Bundy were cowboys and ranchers, officials from the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association were not among them.
The organization complains about “federal regulations [that] have infringed on … public land grazing rights and the multiple use management principle,” as it did in a press release this week.
“However, in accordance with the rule of law, we must use the system set forth in our Constitution to change those laws and regulations,” the statement continued. “Nevada Cattlemen's Association does not condone actions that are outside the law in which citizens take the law into their own hands … Nevada Cattlemen’s Association does not feel it is our place to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter. Additionally, NCA believes the matter is between Mr. Bundy and the Federal Courts.”
Those courts have ruled against Bundy several times – the basis for the BLM’s charge that the rancher owes Uncle Sam more than $1 million in fees dating back 20 years.
Bundy says he recognizes only state and county authority, not Washington’s. But the Nevada State Constitution acknowledges the authority of the federal government in such cases, stating that “the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States…”
Regarding the 85 percent of Nevada that is federal land, the state constitution says: “The people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”
If the feud involves Bundy and one other major figure, that’s US Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader, whose involvement is seen by some in conspiratorial fashion.
Many of Bundy’s supporters believe that Sen. Reid and his son are involved in a land grab to build a solar energy facility backed by Chinese investors. They’re suspicious of the fact that the head of the BLM, Neil Kornze, used to work for Reid.
Speaking at an event this week hosted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Reid said the Bundy supporters who brought firearms to the confrontation with the BLM are “nothing more than domestic terrorists.”
Reid pointed to the comments of Bundy supporter and former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who told Fox News: “We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they are going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”
“Rogue” or not, federal officers deescalated the confrontation by leaving Bundy’s cattle alone for now.
“The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” Mr. Kornze, the agency chief, said in a statement. Given past federal court decisions, the federal government would seem to have the upper hand.
Meanwhile, long-term shifts in diet, methods of cattle production, and environmental sensibilities mean fewer and fewer acres of public land are used for grazing.
“Over time there has been a gradual decrease in the amount of grazing that takes place on BLM-managed land, and that trend continues today,” the BLM reports. “Grazing use on public lands has declined from 18.2 million AUMs in 1954 to 7.9 million AUMs in 2013. In most years, the actual use of forage is less than the amount authorized because forage amounts and demands depend on several factors, such as drought, wildfire, and market conditions….”