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Livestock grazing on federal public lands is a privilege — not a right

Livestock grazing on federal public lands is a privilege — not a right
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Recently, the Hage family of central Nevada has become the poster boy for ranchers supposedly victimized by federal law enforcement. But far from being victims of a repressive federal bureaucracy, the Hage family demonstrates the vulnerability of our western public lands to the livestock industry.

The Hage family have played significant role in the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a political movement aimed at utilizing western public lands for the benefit of the livestock industry.

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The Hage family cattle were impounded in 1991 for repeatedly trespassing and overgrazing on Forest Service lands. That year, Wayne Hage Sr. sued the federal government for suspending his grazing lease, arguing that he had purchased the local water rights and therefore possessed a sort of squatter’s right to graze on neighboring public lands.

 

Wayne Hage Jr. picked up where his father left off, continuing the litigation against federal agencies and grazing the Hage cattle on public lands without a permit, just like Cliven Bundy has done in the Gold Butte National Monument near Bunkerville, Nevada. 

The Hages initially won in front of a friendly judge, but the ruling was overturned on appeal. The Circuit Court ruled that the District Court judge was biased and acted unlawfully, setting the opinion aside and assigning the case to a different lower-court judge. After a 20-year legal battle, the courts ultimately ruled that because the federal agencies had revoked his grazing permits for a litany of violations, his cattle had no right to be on federal land in the first place.

After years of this malingering, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) scheduled a congressional field hearing in Nevada. One of the witnesses called to testify against the Forest Service was her husband-to-be, Wayne Hage. Wayne Hage Sr. went on to be an outspoken advocate for privatizing public lands, even publishing a book in 1994 called “Storm over Rangelands,” which has become the manifesto of the land seizure movement.

His battle cry for a “range war” has been taken up more recently by the Bundy clan of southern Nevada. Cliven Bundy held his family’s first armed standoff with law enforcement at Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014 to block the federal roundup of his illegally trespassing cattle, followed by the Bundy-led armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. But neither the Hages nor the Bundys are necessarily outliers among the public lands ranching community. The Bundys also are linked to a 2015 armed uprising at the Sugar Pine Mine in rural Oregon.

Just last November, Crook County, Oregon hired former Cliven Bundy attorney Karen Budd-Falen to hand over management of federal public lands to the county government.

And the Trump administration itself has been holding closed-door meetings with county advocates of land seizure in an effort to weaken federal environmental regulations and put county governments in the driver’s seat of federal land-use decisions.

Survivalist groups throughout the nation look to stake out a homeland in sparsely-populated parts of Montana and Wyoming they refer to as “The Redoubt.” The northeastern counties of California would like to secede from the state and establish their own right-wing state called “Jefferson.”

Local support groups, such as the National Federal Lands Conference, formed by eastern Nevada rancher Bert Smith, have hailed Cliven Bundy as “a hero.” Local western newspapers have lionized Hage and his family for taking a stand for property rights and western land issues. 

Today, right-wing think tanks and astroturf lobbying groups are fanning the flames of the land seizure movement, and undermining conservation protections such as national monuments and the Endangered Species Act. This campaign also has friends in Congress, particularly the “Federal Land Action Group,” a caucus of lawmakers convened specifically to turn over public lands to state and local control. 

In reality, western public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service belong to the whole American public. These federal agencies authorize livestock grazing on public lands under a landlord-tenant relationship, in which the ranchers lease the exclusive right to graze the grass but receive no “rights” to the land itself. The public lands must by law be managed for multiple uses, including public access and enjoyment, wildlife habitat conservation, wilderness, watershed protection, and other uses under various federal statutes. Public lands truly belong to all Americans.

Livestock grazing on federal public lands is a privilege, not a right. When the final ruling came down on the Hage case, the judge concluded that under the Constitution, “no individuals have a right to graze livestock on the federal land at issue without authorization from the United States. … Any and all rights on federal property must be expressly granted by Congress.”

As early as 1996, a federal judge struck down county ordinances seeking to assert local control over federal lands. The constitutional smackdown handed down in the Hage case should have ended rancher efforts to seize control of federal lands through the court system. But it didn’t. Cliven Bundy filed a new lawsuit in state court in January of 2018 claiming that the federal government has no authority to own its land. 

Public land ranchers should not be painted as victims, given how pervasive land seizure sentiments and rebellion against the rule of law have become. Most Americans are beginning to see the cowboy myth for what it truly is: a distracting cover for an even greater land heist to turn even more of our national inheritance over to commercial exploitation.

Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout western public lands.