Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rancher Bundy's Enemy of the Interior


At first, to hear his side of it, he had a point.

A hard-working rancher standing up to land-grabbing federal agents.  The federal government wanting him to put the welfare of turtles over his cattle.  Or was it the federal government having no right to tell him where to graze his cattle?  After all,  his family has been on that same Nevada ranch before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was ever created.

Or was it about his desire for the state of Nevada to have jurisdiction over grazing rights, not the federal government?  Or that he shouldn't have to pay federal taxes on land owned by the federal government?

The reasons for why Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is protesting his million-dollar fine by the BLM wander around the Internet in a pattern faintly reminiscent of a wild horse.  And the more we hear his side of things, from ranching to his personal racism, the more it seems he doesn't really have a legitimate point after all.

Or at least, the personal integrity to back it up.

Originally, the story of the high-desert standoff between Bundy and federal agents sounded a bit scary.  The government was interfering with a noble rancher's ability to run his business.  Then we learned about the fine, and that plenty of other ranchers might not have been happy about the arrangement with the BLM, but that they saw greater value in working with the BLM, instead of against it.

After all, the BLM helps get water for these ranchers.  It's not just a bureaucratic triviality.  As an agency of the United States Department of the Interior, the bureau helps fight wildfires, and it even helps with rounding up wild horses and burros that respect nobody's property rights.  Granted, it's not without its faults, and the whole desert tortoise thing tells me that there's probably a lot of wacky stuff those bureaucrats get up do.

Nevertheless, if Bundy wants to pitch a fit about land rights, states rights, and federal land management, would he prefer dealing with Washington, or the nation of Mexico, of which the land Nevada occupies used to be a part, or the Native Americans, who were there before the Mexicans?  Who does he think originally owned the land he's been illegally exploiting?

Besides, if Bundy doesn't like the federal government owning 67% of Nevada's land base, then is he willing to pay property taxes on the land his herds graze?  He and his supporters bristle at the very concept of the government owning land, but at least he gets to use the BLM's land; if it were privately held by somebody else, would he be able to?  Would he be able to afford to maintain that land all by himself?

Since he obviously believes the rules and fees imposed by the BLM are too onerous, why couldn't Bundy, apparently an arch conservative, take his grievances about the BLM to court?  Is he dirt poor, and unable to afford a lawyer?  If he's as ardent a champion of the Constitution as he claims to be, shouldn't he be using the law to right wrongs?  Maybe it's one thing to boast about what you believe the Constitution says, and what it actually says.  After all, two courts have already ruled against him in actions brought by the federal government.  Did he lose those because of fraud by Washington lawyers?  What about appeals?  If he's such an anti-federalist, does he not want his case to work its way up to the Supreme Court?

Part of me wanted to feel sorry for him since he claimed his family has been on that land since the late 19th Century.  But then some reporters went on the Internet and started digging into his family history, and apparently, Bundy is spinning quite a yarn when it comes to his past.  According to evidence recorded for one of the court rulings against him, Bundy's father was the first member of his family to graze on BLM land, and that began in 1954.

Oops.

That dad-burn federal guv'ment keeps too many records!

Then there's this inconvenient factoid:  the Bundy family ranch was purchased from the Leavitt family in 1948.  Two years after the BLM was formed.

Dang-nabbit!

Unfortunately, Bundy's rapidly unraveling credibility has overtaken what might have otherwise been a relatively credible battle.  He might actually have a point about the BLM and claims about its heavy-handed approach to grazing fees and land rights.  Fox News has shone some light on a similar land battle - which has been bouncing around the courts for years - that rings alarm bells regarding the bureau's tactics and the sloppy process of land claims as America's Wild West was being tamed.

Property law has become a booming business in not just Nevada, but across the country.  You see, land deals that used to be sealed with a handshake more than a century ago are now invisible, undocumented, and therefore considered invalid in today's government offices and courts of law.  My brother had to jump through hoops when some long-held family land was officially deeded to him in Maine, and the courts had incomplete records of the property lines.  The problem?  All the farmers three and four generations ago did their business with handshakes and hand-drawn maps, with painted rocks and notches in tree trunks to demarcate property.  Such gentlemens' agreements back in the day leave the door wide open for confusion and governmental abuse today.  My brother had to hire a law firm to properly sort it all out.

Bundy's case may be different, but unlike my brother, who sought to remedy legal problems legally, Bundy has pretty much ruined his ability to at least win an honest hearing in the court of public opinion, let alone in federal court.  He hasn't played by the rules, no matter how unfair they might have seemed to him.  He hasn't paid his taxes and fees, no matter how unfair they might have seemed to him.  And he hasn't been honest about his family's history.

If he really cared about his state, his fellow ranchers, the Constitution, the rule of law, his family, his integrity, and even his ranching business, he would have been working within our legal system to change rules and laws he believes to be unfair.  If he couldn't have paid for such advocacy out of his own pocket, he should have marshaled the combined resources of the ranching community to push for change.  No, it's not easy to fight big government.  But if we'd come to the standoff at his ranch after he'd put up an honorable fight, instead of what increasingly appears to have been a dishonest impertinence, he wouldn't have to rely on a bunch of rabble-rousing pseudo-anarchists to posture menacingly in his defense.  He'd likely have been able to convince people like me to support him; people who respect fair laws and encourage change for unfair laws.  There are more of us in America than apparently he thinks there are.

As it is, however unfairly the BLM may be acting in his case, he's done nothing to discredit the laws they are using against him.  And that's to his discredit.

He's been more of an enemy to himself than the BLM has.


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