Senators and governors from nine western states held a first-ever summit on Friday, April 18, in Salt Lake City, to win more control over the vast swaths of federal land within their borders. The summit had been planned before the standoff between the federal Bureau of Land Management and Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy a week earlier focused national attention on the plight of the federally occupied West.
Rural residents there are being stripped of their livelihoods by federal agencies, which take orders from Washington, D.C., and don’t understand their ways of life.
Their discontent also boiled over at a local Moapa Valley Town board meeting in Nevada on April 9. “This is a hell of a lot bigger than Cliven Bundy,” said Charlie Childers, standing in front of a sign that read, “We are dedicated to maintain a rural lifestyle.” Childers warns that the federal agents attacking Bundy “are setting a precedent” and will drive ranchers out of one area after another.
It’s possible. The federal government owns 81 percent of the land in Nevada and controls nearly half the land in the western states. Control is the issue. Residents depend on those lands, not just for fishing and hunting, but also for their livelihoods. That’s hard for easterners to imagine. In Connecticut and New York, the federal government owns less than one percent of the land.
During the 1990s, the federal government hiked grazing fees and imposed new restrictions on rangelands that made cattle ranching next to impossible. Many ranchers pulled up stakes. Bundy, who raises cattle about 80 miles north of Las Vegas, held on but stopped paying grazing fees. He also refused to vacate lands the federal government declared off-limits to ranchers in order protect an endangered species of desert turtle.
Rural residents see the Bureau of Land Management making ranchers extinct in order to protect fragile species from extinction at the behest of the Sierra Club and other powerful interest groups.
It’s happened before. In the 1990s, federal agencies drove lumbering out of vast areas of the Pacific Northwest in hopes of saving the northern spotted owl. Another species of owl moved in to replace the fragile one, as often happens in nature, but by then, the damage to local communities dependent on logging was done. Thousands of forestry workers lost their jobs and timber mills were shuttered.
It’s politically incorrect to question how much is spent saving an owl, but Washington, D.C., questions spending money on grandma’s hip replacement.
Childers captured the cruelty of letting Washington bureaucrats decide which of God’s creatures deserve protection. When the BLM agents seized Bundy’s cattle, it was calving time. They left behind day-old and week-old doggie calves, Childers explains. The agents “didn’t even bother to pair them up,” he adds. “Their moms aren’t with them anymore.”
With no one to feed them, “Imagine what is happening to those doggie calves,” Childers went on. “They give a darn about these turtles and give a damn about these mustangs. Did God not create the cow?”
Congress needs to step in and provide local residents of the West with the same degree of economic self-determination and freedom that Americans in the rest of the nation enjoy. Seven western states recently enacted laws calling for control over public lands. This is a vain effort, because states lack the legal authority to do this and have been rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the past. Only Congress can act.
About 20 percent of the federal lands in the West are important national parks, recreation resources or assets of the Defense Department that should remain under federal control. But Congress should liberate the rest of the land.
That means turn it over to the states. Much of this land contains gas and oil reserves that will be developed far faster once they are out from under federal control, providing jobs at a local level and energy independence to the nation.
Most importantly, Westerners should not be treated like residents of an occupied territory, pushed around and disrespected by the big landowner in Washington, D.C.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of “Beating Obamacare.”