WASHINGTON, May 4, 2014 — While Cliven Bundy and his stand off with the Bureau of Land Management landed on the front page of several daily news sites, he is not the first rancher to stand up to the government. Moreover, the fight between the federal government and ranchers has been going on for more than 150 years.
After the Civil War, the United States Government implemented the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of public land to any American who settled it.
Ranchers took advantage of the Act to set up ranches to feed America’s beef industry. Because it takes vast acreage to feed cattle, ranchers needed to increase their grazing lands as they increased their herds. Ultimately, ranchers leased federal land from the government, and paid grazing fees for that right.
One reason ranchers were forced to turn to the federal government for that land is because it owns enormous amounts of the Western states. In Nevada, the federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land within the state boundaries.
The arrangement created tensions, however, because ranchers depended on an outside party for their livelihood. Ranchers worried that Washington could revoke that right, and that fear increased with the Endangered Species Act, which restricted use of federal land to protect habitat.
In 1976, after Congress officially ceded ownership of public lands to the BLM and other federal land managers, some individuals launched the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” The group wanted to give individual states, rather than the federal government, control over public lands.
The movement lost momentum after a few years, but was reborn in 1994 when Nye County Commissioner Richard Carver used a bulldozer to open a Forest Service road that had been closed by authorities.
Many ranchers continue to back the idea of having individual states own the land. Nevada rancher Tim Dufferina told NPR, “The state is more in touch with what’s going on in each individual state than the federal government.”
In Utah, the legislature passed a law demanding that the federal government turn its land over to state authorities. Nevada ranchers hope their state will follow suit.
State ownership of land carries risks as well, however. State budgets are not nearly as expansive as the ever-growing federal budget, and managing the public land is expensive. Just fighting fires and managing mineral rights, not to mention running national parks, costs millions of dollars.
If those costs go up, states might be forced to sell of parcels. Private ownership of land risks development, raising population density and eliminating grazing land all together.
But some ranchers say the current situation simply does not work.
Before Bundy made headlines, Raymond Yowell lost his cattle herd to the Bureau of Land Management.
Yowell, an 84-year-old rancher who formerly was a Shoshone chief, allowed his 132 head of cattle to graze on the South Fork Western Shoshone Indian Reservation for decades. In 2002, however, the BLM seized his cattle and sold them at auction to pay what the BLM said he owed in grazing fees. The BLM also sent Yowell a bill for $180,000 in remaining fees, and is now garnishing his Social Security checks to pay that balance.
Yowell had argued he was not subject to grazing fees because his cattle grazed on a reservation. The Shoshone say the original treaties that created the reservations granted them the right to graze cattle on the land. However, a 1979 Supreme Court decision ruled that land designated for Indian reservations is subject to BLM regulation.
Yowell is now appealing to have the Supreme Court hear his case, which alleges that his cattle was taken without due process.
The BLM does not comment on pending cases.
There are numerous other cases of ranchers fighting the government, and of the ranchers ultimately losing.
But there are also numerous appeals currently waiting at all levels of the judiciary.
Nothing, yet, is settled, and all rancher eyes remain focused on Cliven Bundy to see where his fight leads.