Guy W. Farmer: Western states and federal lands

The San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last Tuesday ruled in favor of the federal government in the case of a Nevada rancher who grazed his cattle on federal land. Are we surprised?

No, we’re not surprised because liberal judges almost always rule in favor of the government in western land and water disputes. This specific case involves the late Tonopah rancher Wayne Hage, who spurred the Sagebrush Rebellion by challenging the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over grazing rights.

The Hage ruling highlights the ongoing clash between western states and the U.S. government over federal ownership of vast tracts of land in the West. Exhibit “A” is Nevada, where the Feds own and/or manage more than 85 percent of the state’s total land area.

Because our country is a Republic — a confederation of 50 sovereign states — I don’t understand why we accept federal control of state lands in perpetuity. This issue reminds me of a past conflict over the Panama Canal Zone, which we controlled “in perpetuity” until President Carter returned the Zone to Panama. He rejected the “we stole it (the Zone) fair and square,” argument of those who opposed his controversial decision.

The federal government didn’t steal Nevada’s land, but it received an invaluable gift when leaders of our push for statehood in 1864 renounced all claims to most of the land within the new state’s boundaries. The reasons for this massive land grant to the Feds make no sense in the 21st century.

Which brings us to two current conflicts over federal lands in the West. One is the misguided decision by a group of ranchers to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Oregon. This group is led by Ammon Bundy, the son of renegade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refuses to pay federal grazing fees. That case is in the courts, where it belongs.

Ammon Bundy says his group occupied the Malheur Refuge to protest federal land management policies. That’s fine, but he’s going about it the wrong way, and his group is increasingly isolated as it pleads for food, water and other supplies to make it through the winter in a harsh environment.

Meanwhile, Harney County (Ore.) Sheriff David Ward has asked Bundy to heed the will of local citizens and depart the wildlife area. Ward says he’s “keeping all options open.” I hope it doesn’t come down to an armed standoff like the one that erupted in southeastern Nevada a couple of years ago between Bundy’s father’s armed militia and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Fortunately, that one ended peacefully when gun-toting militia members went home.

In another recent federal-state clash, U.S. District Judge Miranda Du rejected an eastern Nevada water district’s latest attempt to replace a leaking storage tank in the town of Baker near Great Basin National Park. The judge claimed to be protecting greater sage grouse habitat in the remote area. Personally, I’d favor Nevada ranchers over the sage grouse.

The Oregon standoff and eastern Nevada water controversy are current examples of federal-state clashes over land and water issues. The Congressional Western Caucus condemned the renegade ranchers in Oregon while recognizing “their frustration with increasingly heavy-handed federal agencies that continue to violate the rights of hardworking American farmers and ranchers.”

Congressman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City), vice-chair of the Western Caucus, has negotiated several turnovers of federal lands to Nevada and other western states. While no one wants to deliver national parks to the states, I hope Amodei’s caucus will continue its efforts to defend states’ rights by recovering unproductive federal lands.

Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, believes in the Tenth Amendment.


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