So about those brave patriot rancher dudes…

You have probably looked askance at the crew occupying a bird sanctuary in Oregon and wondered who the hell those guys are and what the hell they want. You are not alone.

Ammon Bundy, son of welfare cheat Cliven Bundy, sums it up for us:

“We’re going to be freeing these lands up, and getting ranchers back to ranching, getting the loggers back to logging, getting the miners back to mining where they could do it under the protection of the people and not be afraid of this tyranny that’s been set upon them.”

What are they yammering on about?

The basis of their argument is that the Constitution, in Article IV, Section 3, Paragraph 2 states:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”

…which they have interpreted to mean that the United States government cannot therefore actually “own” any land belonging to a state and so all that public land they’ve been grazing/logging/mining on needs to be “freed” from the control of the United States. (Many of these people are part of the III% movement, i.e., it only took 3% of the population of the colonies—according to them—to free us from Britain. Such patriot, much liberty.)

Here’s why they’re full of shit.

You may dimly recall that after winning independence, the thirteen former colonies had their eye on the land to the northwest of their boundary (hence, the Northwest Territories), but there were some disagreements on how it was to be added to the United States, or whether it could be added, and all that stuff. Much of the property was already in dispute between the bigwig states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia,1 and so a radical idea was proposed: everybody give up all your claims and cede the land to the United States, aka the federal government.2

This was the famous Northwest Ordinance , a brilliant piece of legislation passed in 1787 and a document that is, as far as I’m concerned, should be considered part of the Constitution itself. The deal was that Congress would set up rules about how that territory—and all future territories ::cough Manifest Destiny cough::—would be administered, packaged, sold off, and finally admitted as states to the United States.

In other words, all land not already part of a state was land belonging to the United States.

Let’s take a moment to ignore the fact that this property was already occupied when we got here. Even as we fast forward through the timeline, ignore the fact that the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cessions were of land that didn’t actually belong to the people from whom we bought/wrested it.

So, ignoring all that, as we added those vast swaths of territory3 to our purview, Congress kept doing its job of drawing boundaries and selling off the land as they could.4

Oops—almost missed that there, didn’t you? The III% crowd certainly has.

All land belonged to the United States. It was sold off as they went. That which was not sold remained in the possession of the United States, even after the territory became a state. That’s part of the deal of becoming a state. Strange, but true. About 47% of western lands is still public lands.5

So the III% shibboleth that the United States is constitutionally prohibited from owning land is bullshit in every way, both de jure and de facto. (See Update below.)

Most of the western territories remain public because no one wanted to buy it, back when we were selling it. (Or letting people homestead it.) In the last 100 years, of course, we’ve begun to take a more custodial view of those lands. (Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt [R-Really?]!)6

Which brings us to grazing rights. For 150 years, public lands were absolutely public. You could homestead a ranch, which gave you a certain amount of property, and then you just let your cattle roam as far as they could go to survive. Total freedom—no tyranny here nosirree!

If you are familiar with my oeuvre, you know that the Tragedy of the Commons is a recurring motif. We have in our present circumstance a perfect example.

As pointed out in this tidy summary at The Wildlife News, by the 1930s the grazing lands were a disaster. Introduced by a Colorado congressman, a rancher (!), the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was designed 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.”

The U.S. Grazing Service—and its successor, the Bureau of Land Management7—instituted grazing fees to help control overgrazing of the public lands. It’s that simple. It’s not tyrannical overreach (thanks, Obama!), and no one has “taken away” any rancher’s lands. It’s a sometimes complicated contractual agreement into which ranchers/loggers/miners enter with the United States, but the bottom line is that it is simply that: a contract.

Further, the fees charged by the BLM—by the United States—are far below market rate. The United States will charge you $1.35 for per AUM (the amount of land needed to support a cow and her calf for a month); the market rate out west, i.e., what a private land owner will charge you, is $20.10/AUM.

So when the Bundys whine about tyrannical government, remember that they’re whining about a 93% discount in what they’re charged to use our land, and that discount is provided by you, the taxpayer.8 Cliven Bundy and his sons are welfare queens.

Or when they proudly proclaim they’re holed up in a remote bird sanctuary to free these lands up, to get ranchers back to ranching, loggers logging, and miners mining, remember that the whole reason the BLM exists is that unrestrained use of public land was a disaster—the idea that present-day corporations and welfare queens would be better at land use now than they were 100 years ago is risible.9

The irony is that if they got their way and the United States divested itself of the land, the Bundys couldn’t afford to buy it. Speculators and corporations would snatch it up and would charge the boys full market rate. And how do you think it would work if Cliven Bundy chose not to honor his contract with those people?

So you will pardon me if I mock these mighty patriots holed up in a bird sanctuary, fighting against a tyrannical government that exists only in their imagination—an evil entity which, for the rest of us, is simply the United States. The U.S. Us.

Update: Further insight at RawStory. [back]


1 Georgia once claimed all the land west of the colony, first all the way to the Pacific, and then more modestly to the Mississippi. Part of the deal of joining the United States was giving up those claims. (Virginia was not about to allow that cracker state to supersede it in empire building.) [back]

2 The conservative nutjobs have done an effective job of making “federal government” into a bad word, a shibboleth that gives them tingles down their legs as they imagine it hiding in their closet or under their bed. I will therefore use “the United States” instead to remind these yahoos that what they’re talking about is our country. [back]

3 Oh, all right. Huge tracts of land. There, are you happy? [back]

4 For a hugely interesting and entertaining look at the process, see Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes [back]

5 This Salon article is a great overview of the issue. [back]

6 Let’s see you wrangle punctuation like that, bucko! [back]

7 Yes, the same BLM that manages the Playa where Burning Man takes place. [back]

8 FiveThirtyEightPolitics has a very good article about it. [back]

9 The Salon article points out that even if the United States wanted to devolve the property onto the states, the cash-strapped—and need I add, deep Republican red—states would be loath to accept the gift. They couldn’t afford it.  Talk about a welfare state! [back]

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