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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One could write a postwar history of the West as a chronology of ranchers’ resistance to federal regulation, and the center of resistance has always been Nevada. In 1979, following the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which for the first time mandated environmental protection of territory controlled by the BLM, cattlemen pushed a law through the Nevada state legislature declaring that federal public lands were now the property of the state. They called it the Sagebrush Rebellion Act. The cattle barons styled themselves “sagebrush rebels,” and engaged in acts of defiance against the BLM, opening dirt tracks onto grazing allotments that had been closed, bulldozing new roads, overstocking their allotments, violating permit agreements, and refusing to pay grazing fees. As the rebellion spread, a conservative interest group called the American Legislative Exchange Council joined the fight. ALEC was founded in 1973 to craft “model legislation” for state governments; it brought together conservative state legislators and industry representatives in closed-door sessions. Copycat Sagebrush Rebellion Acts were passed in Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

In the past thirty years, ALEC has thrived: 27 percent of all state legislators are now members. Its corporate advisory board includes ExxonMobil, Altria, and Koch Industries. In addition to its work fighting federal ownership of public lands, ALEC has helped states to pass stand-your-ground laws, to privatize public education, and to implement ag-gag rules.

A tumbleweed near hoof marks on a grazed patch of Jarbidge BLM land in Idaho. Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve

A tumbleweed near hoof marks on a grazed patch of Jarbidge BLM land in Idaho. Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve

On April 19, 2014, one week after the Bundy standoff, some fifty Republican state lawmakers, from nine Western legislatures, convened in Salt Lake City for what they called the Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands. The conference was organized by Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative, and Becky Lockhart, the speaker of the House in Utah: both are members of ALEC. Ivory had sponsored Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature in 2012. At the summit, Lockhart called the Bundy affair “a symptom of a much larger problem” — the problem being that federal public land exists at all.

The ALEC agenda has also found its way back to Congress. The vehicle has been the Republican leadership in the House Committee on Natural Resources, which controls the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. The bills proposed in the most recent congressional session speak for themselves. The State-Run Federal Lands Act, sponsored by Representative Don Young, a former ALEC member from Alaska, authorizes federal-land managers to “enter into a cooperative agreement for state management of such federal land located in the state.” The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, sponsored by Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, directs the secretary of the interior to “offer for disposal by competitive sale certain federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.” With Republicans now in control of both the House and the Senate, these bills have a good chance of passing.

Recently I spoke with the ranking Democratic member of the natural-resources committee, Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona. “We are seeing bills that begin to tear at the fiber of law on the federal public lands,” Grijalva told me. “These laws would allow state law to supersede the federal government.” In 2013 and 2014, the Subcommittee on Public Lands and the Environment held a number of hearings in which witnesses “carrying the ALEC agenda,” in Grijalva’s words, attested that the states do a better job at managing public lands than the federal government. “But the states don’t do a better job,” Grijalva told me. “We know that. These hearings keep pounding the agenda into the record — they are redundant — and then you get to the point where you have congresspeople saying, ‘Well, we’ve had six hearings on this, let’s start to craft legislation.’ The chatter is deliberate and persistent.”

2 The inspector general’s office responded in a July 25 letter to Grijalva, stating there was “insufficient evidence of improper influence by ALEC on DOI employees . . . to warrant an investigation at this time.” Grijalva told me, “My sense of it is that the investigation was cursory at best. I think it was, ‘Let’s just put this one aside.’ ”

Last April, Grijalva asked the acting inspector general of the Department of the Interior to “investigate the role of [ALEC] in efforts to pass bills at the state level that directly contradict federal land management policies and directives, and to assess the extent to which these efforts have affected Department of Interior personnel.” Grijalva worried that “ALEC’s pattern of activity raises serious questions about how changes to land management laws and regulations, especially in the Western United States, are being pushed by ALEC without public disclosure of its role or that of the corporations that fund its legislative agenda.” He noted that ALEC’s positions are “entirely consistent with the position taken by anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters.”2 One of ALEC’s model bills is the Eminent Domain Authority for Federal Lands Act, which, like Bundy, cites Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution to justify state seizure of federal land. (A spokesperson for ALEC disavowed Bundy and his actions.)

A cow drinks on a section of the Jarbidge where herbicide spraying, trampling, and the planting of exotic grasses like cheatgrass have destroyed the native vegetation and ground cover. Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve

A cow drinks on a section of the Jarbidge where herbicide spraying, trampling, and the planting of exotic grasses like cheatgrass have destroyed the native vegetation and ground cover. Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve

The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved. But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands, to reduce their worth in the public eye, to diminish and defund the institutions that protect the land, and to neuter enforcement. Bernard DeVoto observed in the 1940s that no rancher in his right mind wanted to own the public lands himself. That would entail responsibility and stewardship. Worse, it would mean paying property taxes. What ranchers have always wanted, and what extractive industries in general want, is private exploitation with costs paid by the public.

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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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