Cliven Bundy and the Disclosure of the Commons

If you haven’t heard by now, Cliven Bundy is a 68-year-old rancher in southern Nevada who has been grazing his cattle on public lands since 1993 without paying the BLM anything. Now that the feds are seizing his, and others’, cattle he has cried foul. The reason? Shockingly, Bundy claims that his family has been using that land to graze cattle since the 1880s, before there were any federal controls on it, so… yeah. That’s it. That’s the argument.

Also, Bundy is a Mormon. Bundy has 14 kids. Bundy’s ancestors were Mormons, in the 1880s. Also, Bundy thinks federal lands are his property. From the L.A. Times:

“I’ve got to protect my property,” he told The Times last year. “If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

Needless to say, Bundy is not able to stop the BLM at all. The BLM, as per the article from the L.A. Times, has expressed some serious frustration with how ranchers have been grazing on public lands without paying their fees for the last couple of decades in southern Nevada. They claim this is unfair to the thousands of ranchers who do abide by the law (that is to say, the ones that pay for their permits). Rogue ranchers, besides Bundy, sometimes pull this stunt with regard to misuse of federal lands. We can argue all day about how reasonable the BLM’s fees or regulations are, but the fact is that they exist to enforce the law and maintain public land. Is the law unjust? Well, we can ask Bundy’s Mormon heritage in the southwest. Or, we can question all of westward expansion, especially the frightfully awful issue of Mormon’s (fleeing federal and state “persecution” elsewhere) co-opting the “commons” used by Native Americans.

Hypocrisy is a bad argument, and we can’t know for sure that the Bundys of 1880s Mormon southern Nevada were killing indigenous people or driving them off of their land. For all we know they thought the indigenous population was wonderful. We need not assume anything horrible. What we could do, instead, is ask Mr. Bundy himself if the Native Americans had a right to their lands in southern Nevada, perhaps as a little “thought experiment.” We can also ask ourselves if it’s OK to claim that property is yours when it isn’t. Technically, Bundy could have (and apparently did at one time) pay to use the land. This, of course, is not the same as owning it. Tenants have rights, but as we all know, typically those rights evaporate rapidly when you stop paying the landlord.

Bundy’s refusal to pay his BLM fees started in 1993. So, for twenty years Bundy has grazed his cattle, free of charge, on federally maintained lands — essentially forcing the unnecessary appropriation of tax dollars to compensate. What’s nice about this, I guess, is that it saves Bundy money. Since he owes something like $300,000 in back fees, we can see the incentive. The Bundy family, in true patriarcho-Mormon-communitarian flair reassert that the land practically exists because of them, apparently regardless of the facts. Bundy’s daughter had this to say:

“My ancestors created the rights to that land one hundred and some odd years ago,” Bailey Logue said. “And we’re not giving them up.”

The facts are a little more complicated. The Bundy ancestry didn’t create the rights out of thin air, that’s for sure. Very likely the rights exist thanks to the federal government, treaties with Native Americans, the existence of many other settlers, lack of arable pasture land, and so on. Again, the historical narrative is important here, but I don’t think digging up the past will lead us to any understanding of the situation at hand. As a matter of fact, all of this harping on family history opens a whole series of convoluted contradictions. When Native Americans complain, or African Americans complain, about past oppression and brutality we all agree that we should move on — live in the now man! As well we should. But, when we harken to the words of a white Mormon rancher, at least in the present case of Bundy’s cattle fiasco, the past is brought forward as a justification. Can we ask the Bundys of the world to “move on” and get with the times and make their own way? Can we assume that Mr. Bundy’s failure with regard to the BLM is due to his lack of “initiative”? Or, can the Bundys of the world insist on their rights of toil and sacrifice in the past and extract reparations from public land management agencies?

My ancestors have worked at a park district in my home town for many years, but I certainly cannot use it without paying the required fees. As a matter of fact, people would find it the pinnacle of stupidity for me to go back to my home town, plant myself down with some of my family under one of the reserved shelters and stay there indefinitely without paying a dime, all the while insisting it was my right. Thankfully I would be discouraged from such hubris by my father, who manages the district and is satisfied with the fact it provides him a job in the summer time when he’s not teaching. I would also probably be discourage by a great many other people who expect the public park to be reasonably accessible to everyone who uses it appropriately and pays the extremely reasonable fees.

The Bundy mission is one where land use is “grandfathered” as an unbroken, sacred chain. Never mind what we learn or understand, never mind, apparently, that there’s a federal government agency responsible for it. Bundy has said elsewhere that he had no interest in paying an agency to cut his own throat. By this we can assume he means that he has no intention of paying for the enforcement and legally-obligated agency of the BLM to do its job. He doesn’t like what they do, so again, never mind.  However, Bundy likes the Sheriff. As is common these days, rural ranchers hung-up on the burdens of the federal government turn to their local Sheriff for consolation. Most Sheriffs are obliging, cautious, professional law enforcement. They exist primarily to calm the nerves of the easily ruffled rural folks. They have probably saved us from a great many catastrophes. They are especially chummy and diplomatic with regard to the rural community’s big farmers and ranchers. They bridge the gap, so to speak, between the diffuse rural agrarians and the metropolitan nature of government authority. Bundy’s Sheriff, in truly Sheriffly fashion said, “No human blood is worth shedding over a cow.” Very well.

It is perhaps a little hard to tell people that you saved $300,000 over 20 years of ranching by not paying land use fees to the BLM (unlike the vast majority of ranchers that do pay), and that now you want a massive outpouring of support for your ancestral grazing rights which you don’t have. This is not a problem of the BLM hi-jacking some unsuspecting rancher’s cows over some spurious endangered species regulation. The desert tortoise is merely a side-note. Environmentalists come squawking into far too many things that have nothing, in principle, to do with them. Yeah, yeah, we know there’s a desert tortoise. As a matter of fact, here’s one:


If the commons are enclosed by private ownership, and not the government, then competition drives lease prices through the roof. Of course, in the case of using government land, it’s remarkably affordable. Let us consider the grazing area in question — the land is fairly useless for much else — 150 square miles of scrub desert for $15,000 a year. And, as Bundy must know, its not just his cattle on that land. Is he ever bothered by the fact other ranchers use “his” property? After all, his sense of propietorship is very real:

Bundy says he “fired the BLM,” and vows not to pay one dime to the agency that he accuses of plotting his demise.

The enclosure of the commons, in this case public land, for private use is the real source of serious threats to many sane agricultural businesses. For example, organic farms frequently contend with their adjacency to surrounding property that use herbicides and pesticides. Also, we all now must consider GMO crops a serious capitalist threat to nature, and as a whole other dimension of the patent de facto enclosure of the commons. But public land is available for a variety of uses contingent on the prevailing nature of the land’s particular qualities. There has to be a balance between the natural condition and the human impact, without which even the human use itself can be put in danger. Since public lands are public, then it stands to reason that we should not accept their treatment as private enclosures through the rogue force of individual will in violation of laws that guarantee the “reasonable” condition of the land in question.  With or without a central government agency, people often establish sane parameters for the use of the “commons.” Social contracts like this need careful planning, management, and enforcement. Someone pays for that, and it is fairly reasonable to make those who use public lands pick up the difference on the tax expenditure tab. We may have problems with the BLM, but such an agency is not auto-magically awful just because they’re the long arm of the federal law. We also should be wary of the auto-poetics of a few hell-bent ranchers and farmers, especially when they eclipse the truly collaborative and cooperative nature of much of the agricultural community.  Laws and regulations can change, organizational pressure is possible, compromises can be reached. If a food-supplying business needs to work with conservation efforts, it can be done. It takes work and engagement. It is certainly “easier” on a state level, but it is by no means impossible on the federal level. However, if the issue that riles us to “action” is simply one of “this land is mine!” when it certainly isn’t, and “I ain’t going to pay some agency to manage me out of business!” (my words, not his) while you and your ancestors obviously stayed in business just fine for a century, then perhaps we’re not looking at our own interests as individuals or a community.



6 thoughts on “Cliven Bundy and the Disclosure of the Commons

    They have 1 million buck to harass you but they killed all the turtles they were caring for because they did not have any money

    Sun, August 25 2013 at 17:45

    The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced it will kill hundreds of threatened desert tortoises it’s been caring for at a Nevada conservation facility. The slaughter is being blamed on a lack of funds by the agency.

    Real estate developers in southern Nevada who wanted to disrupt the habitat of threatened desert tortoises to build their little enclaves of air conditioning and irrigation in the arid suburbs of Las Vegas have been able to do so — for a fee. And while at the height of the real estate boom those fees went a long way toward providing refuge for displaced tortoises, the real estate bust has seen the program implode.

    From the Washington Post:

    Federal funds are running out at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center and officials plan to close the site and euthanize hundreds of the tortoises they’ve been caring for since the animals were added to the endangered species list in 1990.

    “It’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray during a visit to the soon-to-be-shuttered reserve at the southern edge of the Las Vegas Valley last week.

  2. If you read between the lines its just about the MONEY that he stopped paying. They didn’t care that he supposedly let his cows graze on BLM land until he stopped paying.

  3. Would be nice if you did better research before passing judgment. He paid fees to Clark County until 1993. They were $1.86 per head and then were raised by the BLM takeover to nearly $5 a head. Bundy has never received a Bill from BLM, but he did receive 4 Registered Letters from the Las Vegas office of the BLM yesterday.

    1. I was averaging his fees (fines) over the time since he stopped paying. Besides, do these claims change anything about what I said? Cliven Bundy deliberately refused to pay, bill or no bill, he himself knew what he owed. How do you suppose that is? He’s on record citing the figure in multiple places.

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