This is the second of two essays on the contributions of property rights to peace and prosperity. The first examined the horrific problems of the Jews. Most were caused, permitted, or exacerbated by failures to recognize their property rights. This week I consider the current grazing conflict in Nevada. I am joined by FREE research assistant Kyle Florence.
Jews and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), Mormons, have more in common than being “chosen” peoples. Both groups have been subjected to persecutions and appropriations of their property. (World-wide there happen to be roughly the same number of members, roughly 15 million each.) Abuse of the Mormons began shortly after Joseph Smith founded the LDS Church in Fayette, NY in 1830.
Smith and followers moved to Kirkland, Ohio in 1831 and established several outposts in the Midwest. In 1838 mobs attacked the Mormons in Missouri killing twenty. Discouraged by how they were being treated, 15,000 Mormons left Missouri for Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1844 Joseph and Hyrum Smith were broken of jail by a mob and then murdered. Among Mormons, memories of violations of their rights to person and property are embedded in their culture.
In 1847 Brigham Young, as Moses did for the Jews, led his people to Utah. He established Salt Lake City (SLC) as the new Zion. It remains the center of the Mormon Church to this day. It is a commercial center in a region where the federal government is a major landholder. The federal government owns over 80% of Nevada, nearly 60% of Utah, and about half of Oregon, Idaho, Arizona. On average, west of the Mississippi feds own about half the land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and the Park Service administer most of it.
In March of 2012 the governor of Utah signed a bill demanding that federal land be "returned" to the states. This implies three things: The federal holdings are not legitimately owned; the Sagebrush Rebellion generated by the Carter Administration in the 1970s simmers on; and that there is disagreement over property rights to use the resources of these lands.
The current conflict near Bunkerville, Nevada involving Cliven Bundy and the BLM demonstrates predictable disputes when property rights, in this case grazing rights, are contested. Except for a few, the conflict is really about culture not cows. The quarrel is over political economy not protecting ecology. It is really quite complex, here is the story.
Soon after Brigham Young settled SLC he sent out explorers, missionaries, and settlers. The large goal was to build the "Great Basin Kingdom", a self-sufficient, church directed economy in the arid West. They practiced very little commercial agriculture. Instead the Mormon orientation was toward farming and gardening for family subsistence.
Compared to America's East and Midwest, grazing productivity in Nevada is extremely low. It takes 10- 40 times more land to provide grazing for a cow where precipitation is 10” per year than where it is 40”. The average precipitation in Nevada is only seven inches per year. Ranches there require public land grazing to be viable and access to public land is a long standing tradition.
Land that was too poor to merit, homesteading remained in federal ownership and made available to ranchers for grazing. The management of grazing on federal land was nominal under the General Land Office (GLO), a federal bureau created in 1812 for the disposal of public domain land. The GLO began charging for livestock in 1906, five cents per cow and calf per month, a fifth that for a sheep. Grazing privileges at that price rights were a bargain, but it had to be paid or the privilege was lost.
In 1934, by passing the Taylor Grazing Act, Congress created the Grazing Service (GS) to manage grazing on public land. Its purpose was to “stop injury to the public lands by preventing over-grazing and soil deterioration; to provide for orderly use, improvement and development; to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the Public Range and for other purposes.” Then in 1947 Congress merged the GLO and the GS to form the BLM.
Grazing permits from the BLM have terms and conditions specifying the details of how, when and where grazing is permitted. These terms have become more complex and burdensome over the years.
The value of these cheap grazing rights becomes capitalized into the value of the private base unit ranch when it is sold. (Permittees are required to have private property where the livestock are kept for part of the year, called a base unit. This eliminates "gypsy herds", where owners with no land base search for feed year round.)The Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC) accepts this grazing value as collateral when making loans and inheritors are taxed on its capitalized value. These permits are normally renewed every ten years.
Cliven Bundy is a former permittee on this land. The media reports Bundy's base is a mere 160 acres and that he grazes 900 head on 600,000 acres of federal land. (This is roughly five time the size of Ted Turner's Flying D ranch west of Bozeman and between the Gallatin and Madison rivers.)
Here is the hitch. Today the fee is $1.35 per cow per month of grazing. This is under ten percent the cost charged on Nevada private land; they average $15. It seems that Bundy was receiving a huge subsidy, .
Bundy has over a million dollars in fees and fines since 1993. Finally, BLM agents seized his cattle, armed militia came to his defense, and fearing for public safety, the county sheriff de-escalated the situation. It's not over. There are several factors involved. The key is a conflict over property rights.
The situation is complex and highly emotional: Who owns the grazing rights? The Washington Post observed: “The battle is being called Sagebrush II, a sequel to a 1970s movement that sought a state takeover of federal public land. Today, many ranchers, miners and loggers argue the federal government never had a legitimate claim to the land."
Contra to the terms of the Nevada Constitution Bundy says, "I've lived my lifetime here. My forefathers have been up and down the Virgin Valley here ever since 1877. All these rights that I claim have been created through pre-emptive rights and beneficial use of the forage and the water and the access and range improvements."
"My rights are before the BLM even existed, but my rights are created by beneficial use. Beneficial use means we created the forage and the water from the time the very first pioneers come here."
Bundy claims his rights have priority. While federal courts disagree, Bundy claims his rights are derived from his Mormon ancestors’ grazing this land since the 1870s. This is a disagreement over property rights.
Few of his supporters have a direct financial interest in beef. To them it is mainly about the imposition of control from afar. Bunkerville resembles Bunker Hill, a skirmish in a political and property rights war.
In 1772, prior to the American Revolution, Samuel Adams asserted people's natural rights to “life, liberty and property” were threatened by British imperial policy. In Nevada, the military force brought by BLM agents to the protestors supporting Bundy appalled many Americans. They considered automatic weapons and attack dogs excessive.
Only Bundy's despicable racist remarks diffused wider support. An increasing number of Americans are on the edge of using, some for the first time in their lives, a nasty "F word", fascism. That is not where we want to go.
By Kyle Florence
I am a research assistant at FREE and a student at MSU. I am studying Economics and Political Science. I am from a little town named North Bend, WA (30 miles East of Seattle).
You may be asking yourself why does this matter? I am not a rancher. I don’t know anyone like Cliven Bundy. I barely interact with the government on a daily basis, let alone with the militarized police. The reason this matters is simple compared to the complexity of the issue.
As governments feel obligated to manage and control systems rather than monitor and mediate them, such events will become common place. As our rights of property and choice are reduced, supposedly for the public interest, events like those that happened to the Jews, the Mormons, and even Cliven Bundy will become more frequent.
I don’t support Cliven Bundy. He clearly broke legitimate laws and ignored court orders. His logic is flawed. What I do think though is that the battle for real choice, opportunity, and secure property rights will increase in the very foreseeable future.