Letter from Nevada — From the February 2015 issue

The Great Republican Land Heist

Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West

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In 1885, William A. J. Sparks, the commissioner of the General Land Office, reported to Congress that “unscrupulous speculation” had resulted in “the worst forms of land monopoly . . . throughout regions dominated by cattle-raising interests.” West of the hundredth meridian, cattle barons had enclosed the best forage along with scarce supplies of water in an arid landscape. They falsified titles using the signatures of cowhands and family members, employed fictitious identities to stake claims, and faked improvements on the land to appear to comply with the law. “Probably most private range land in the western states,” a historian of the industry concluded, “was originally obtained by various degrees of fraud.”

The cattle barons were not cowboys, though they came to veil themselves in the cowboy mythos. They were bankers and lawyers, or mining and timber and railroad tycoons. They dominated territorial legislatures, made governors, kept judges, juries, and lawmen in their pockets. They hired gunmen to terrorize those who dared to encroach on their interests. They drove off small, cash-poor family ranchers by stampeding or rustling their herds, bankrupting them with spurious lawsuits, diverting water courses and springs, fencing off land to monopolize the grass, and, finally, when all else failed, by denouncing the subsistence ranchers as rustlers who should be lynched. By the late nineteenth century, the barons had privatized the most productive grasslands and the riparian corridors, where the soil was especially rich. What remained was the less valuable dry-land forage of the public domain, which by 1918 totaled some 200 million acres spread across the eleven states of the West, and which the barons also dominated by stocking them with huge numbers of cows.

Overgrazed and underregulated, the public rangelands descended into a spiral of degradation, the grass in ruin, the topsoil eroded by rain or lifted off by the wind. Only in the 1920s did Congress take serious notice. Ferdinand Silcox, the chief forester of the U.S. Forest Service, testified in 1934 that unregulated grazing was “a cancer-like growth.” Its necessary end, Silcox said, was “a great interior desert,” a vast dust bowl.

Hikers near the south end of Recapture Canyon. Photograph by Chad Ress

Hikers near the south end of Recapture Canyon. Photograph by Chad Ress

Congress’s answer was the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The legislation established fees for grazing rights and created what was to become the U.S. Grazing Service, a regulatory apparatus “to stop injury to the public grazing lands.” From the start, though, the regulators were compromised. “What did the Grazing Service do?” Representative Jed Johnson of Oklahoma asked. “They went out and turned [the land] over to the big cowmen and the big sheepmen of the West. Why, they even put them on the payroll.” It was commonplace to find range regulators who were the sons, grandsons, cousins, or old friends of ranchers they were supposed to regulate — if they weren’t ranchers themselves.

This culture passed seamlessly to the Bureau of Land Management, which was created out of a merger between the Grazing Service and the General Land Office, in 1946. That same year, members of the American National Livestock Association met in Salt Lake City to discuss how best to undermine what few regulations had been placed on them. The Taylor Grazing Act had made grazing permits revocable. The livestock-permit holders wanted this provision overturned, for obvious reasons. But the stockmen’s ambition went further: they wanted the federal government to transfer control of all federal land, including the national parks, to the states.

The historian Bernard DeVoto covered the story for this magazine, cautioning that the livestock industry was attempting “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” The public lands “are first to be transferred to the states on the fully justified assumption that if there should be a state government not wholly compliant to the desires of stockgrowers, it could be pressured into compliance,” he wrote. “Nothing in history suggests that the states are adequate to protect their own resources, or even want to, or suggests that cattlemen and sheepmen are capable of regulating themselves even for their own benefit, still less the public’s.”

The push for state ownership of public lands was part of a larger ideological struggle, DeVoto concluded, “only one part of an unceasing, many-sided effort to discredit all conservation bureaus of the government, to discredit conservation itself.”

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and a fellow at the American Independent Institute. His article “Razing Arizona” appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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