The federal government encouraged people to settle the west by granting 160 acres to families who agreed to pull up stake, move west, and take a chance on surviving in an unknown land, sometimes with very little to sustain them. But survive they did, sometimes against great odds. They set about improving the land, clearing rocks from fields, cutting timber and fashioning them into a modest cabin with dirt floors. They survived brutal winters and scorching summers, they endured hunger when their crops failed due to locusts, droughts, and other whims of nature. They labored before sun-up and after sun-down with the hope of building a better life. They spent countless hours building water tanks, sometimes running pipes for miles from a slow running spring or seeping rocks in the hills and mountains hoping to capture enough moisture to keep their families alive, sustain their livestock and water their crops.
All things living depended on the scant moisture nature reluctantly surrendered, especially in the deserts of the west. Very little has changed. Modern conveniences have made life a little easier today, and that is about it.
The land is still unforgiving and unpredictable.
Those pioneers free-ranged their cattle in different areas, one area for winter grass and one area for summer grass. They learned how to do control burns to rid the land of noxious plants that suck up moisture from the earth killing the sparse grass used to feed their cattle, something they learned from Native Americans who had been doing it for thousands of years.
The ranchers shared the land, worked it together and lived in harmony without government interference. State water registries were created that gave deeded grazing and water rights to those who had first put it to beneficial use.
Those deeded rights were treated as private property and recorded in the state or county land office like any other real property. They paid taxes on them like real property and banks issued loans against them. The same applies today.
Certain conditions had to be met to keep those rights, along with the land the ranchers and farmers homesteaded. They had to make beneficial use of the land and water, make improvements to the land, and defend the land. Those were the three basic conditions of ownership. As long as they kept their end of the bargain these hard working men and women of the west could keep and pass those rights down to their children and their children’s children. The only other way they could lose those rights was to sell them or simply walk away.
Today those tenets are still valid, but not as much so. Today if the government decides all or a portion of your land is actually theirs, they simply take it, most of the time without compensation − they take the water rights and the right to forage regardless of state or federal laws, or past rulings from the Supreme Court. The creation of the United States Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA, the Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of land Management, to name a few, has changed the way ranchers and farmers do business in the 11 western states.
These agencies have created laws and regulations that have usurped the Constitution of the United States by violating and taking away state sovereignty and home rule. The most egregious of these violations is the creations of policing agencies that swoop down upon the people and compel them to obey their commands.
The real authority is with “we the people.” This authority is delegated to those elected to protect our interest. The sheriff is the one with the most authority on the county level, not the FBI or any other federal policing agency created by the United States Congress or appointed by the President. The sheriff hires deputies who are authorized to act under his or her authority. If the sheriff or other elected representatives fails to protect the people’s interest, then the people retain the right to protect themselves. The authority always stays with the people.
The worst violator, at least in the west, is the Bureau of Land Management who rules with an iron fist. The FBI, the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service join the BLM in this unauthorized policing. The BLM, especially, has all but destroyed the ranching industry by their improper and illegal land management practices and by employing playground bully tactics.
The courts, too, have usurped and continue to usurp the Constitution by ruling against the people who have given their blood, sweat and tears, and who has encountered every obstacle known to man so they could earn the right to stay and work their land.
The courts have been compromised by rulings against the precepts of the Constitution. This has set a standard where rulings are made on precedent rather than on the law of the land. The federal courts no longer recognize inalienable rights. Inalienable rights are all rights given by God at the time of birth and cannot be violated without the wrath of God. The courts have ruled that God given rights are a myth, that they are not real. The federal government, they say, only has the power to grant inalienable rights. They say the Founding Fathers were wrong, that they did not know what they were talking about when they said people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The environmental movement has had the greatest influence on the federal government in their effort to rid public lands of cattle, mining, logging and people. Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have joined ranks with the BLM and other government agencies to create havoc for those who depend on public lands for their livelihood. Local economies have been destroyed, families thrown into bankruptcy and people sent to prison because of their unlawful tactics.
Before federal agencies and environmentalist came along, the ranchers and farmers thrived because they knew the land, they knew how to manage the land responsibly. They understood if they were not good stewards, the land would not sustain them.
There had always been a general understanding of who owned the range land and the accompanying rights, sort of a gentlemen’s agreement. As time passed, however, questions cropped up among the ranchers about range borders. Disputes happened and tensions arose among neighbors. They recognized that boundaries had to be defined, so they went to the state and asked for help. The states did not have the money to survey the thousands of acres, so the ranchers petitioned the federal government for help.
This was especially true with Nevada in the late 1920s which was the least populated state in the union with only 94,000 people. Compare this with Utah which had 522,000 citizens, Arizona with 430,000 and New York with 122 million. The agreement to survey resulted in congress passing the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. This act helped to establish boundaries and to protect the rights of rancher’s and farmer.
The states essentially asked the federal government to come in and “save” them. The result was federal control. Once they started depending on the government for their livelihood and the health of the economy, the ranchers, farmers and the state governments turned a blind eye each time state or individual rights were violated by the federal government.
The federal governments did what the states requested it to do, survey and establish boundaries. In order to manage these boundaries the federal government created a Grazing Office under the umbrella of the Taylor Grazing Act to assist the ranchers in preserving their rights to grazing the range land. Notice I said, “To preserve their rights to grazing,” not to steal it.
That was the original intent and it worked well for a long time. Before the Grazing Office came along, the General Land office, established in 1812, was created by congress to administer public lands in the Territories. Notice that I said Territories, with a capital T − it had nothing to do with administering lands within the established states or new states entering the union.
It was decided that the ranchers would pay a yearly fee per cow to the Grazing Office. In return the ranchers formed a committee that would decide as a community how best to use the money. Twenty percent was to be set aside for administration purposes and eighty percent was to go back to the ranchers. They put the money to use by mending fences, keeping up roads, building new water systems and repairing old ones that had been built by their ancestors a hundred years earlier. Improvements were made to the land year after year. Beneficial use and improvement was being applied. It was an efficient system that everyone profited from. It worked.
The money paid into the Grazing Office became to be known over time as a grazing fee, but was actually an improvement fee managed strictly by and for the ranchers.
Things went really well for several years. Never at any time did the ranchers question their neighbors over range land or water rights. They knew who owned them because they had been established through years of beneficial use starting with their pioneer ancestors.
These rights never belonged to the federal government, except when the land was part of a Territory, with a capital T. I emphasize that because the Constitution distinguishes the difference between State and Territory. The federal government controlled and administered the Territories, including water and minerals. After states were created from the Territories, the land and all rights reverted back to the states under the Equal Footing Doctrine.
However, the BLM and the federal judges will tell you a different story today. It is not because they do not understand the constitutionality of it; they simply do not recognize it. Once one judge rules in favor of the government, it then sets a precedent for future cases. Today the question of who owns the land, the federal government or the state, has yet to be permanently settled because of different interpretations in the courts. The Constitution says one thing, but the courts say something else.
Because they have continued to rule on precedent and not on the rule of law, the question in the minds of land owners remains in limbo. Most federal courts do not even recognize the Constitution as a valid argument because of personal interpretations, and because it may result in jury nullification, which, by-the-way is legal.
The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act’s sole purpose was to get the land and resources into the hands of the ranchers. It was to encourage them to use and manage the resources and to help them manage those resources by establishing best practices as proven through sound science and techniques at the time. This was the same principal the government used with the farmers and ranchers during the Great Depression.
That all changed in 1946 when the federal government combined the Land office with the Grazing Office to form the Bureau of Land Management.
Things went smoothly for a while, but as time passed the BLM began to change their style of management from helping the ranchers, to controlling them. Inside the BLM bureaucracy individuals began working their way up in positions of power and influence. Before long the committees were dismantled and the money and resources were taken and used for the BLM’s own good. Nothing went to the ranchers. It went from 80% for the Ranchers to 100% for the BLM.
One of the ranchers who served on the committees was Cliven Bundy, who later made the case that federal ownership of land was unconstitutional. He explains, “Back before ’34, before the Taylor Grazing Act, they started to have range wars. Instead of settling boundary disputes in local and state courts, the federal government got involved. It was the rancher’s fault; they never should have allowed it to start. They started paying the Taylor Grazing fees in ’34, to adjudicate the boundaries. The adjudicating went on right up through the ‘60s. Then they needed fences and water. The ranchers paid for that adjudication, $6 to $10 per animal unit and they were getting 80% of the fees back in range improvements. Twelve and a half percent was supposed to go to the BLM for administration, and then the rest was for range improvements.”
In the Southern Nevada district there were only four BLM agents in the whole area. They became an entity unto themselves and used the funds however they wanted without the ranchers having any say so at all. The Ranchers complained and said, “Hey what about our funds?”
The BLM replied, “What about it? It’s our money and we can do whatever we want with it, like it or not!”
As the ranchers passed down their grazing and water rights from one generation to the other, their rights were understood less and less. They failed to fight for those rights, but chose instead to accept everything the BLM and other agencies said. They were convinced they had no rights, that the grazing and water allotments were federally owned. Even the states, who legally owned the land, did nothing to challenge the authority of the federal government. When some of the ranchers did question the BLM, they harassed, bullied and threatened them with law suits, huge fines, confiscation of their livestock and land and water rights − all of this to coerce them into submission.
The environmentalist joined them by filing friendly lawsuits to give the BLM, NFS and other agencies an excuse to act. A lot of the judges, who once acted as lawyers for these environmental groups and shared their vision, were appointed to the federal bench by administrations who also shared the same views. With allies in place, it was very hard for ranchers, miners and loggers to win in a court of law. With the help of the courts, lands were taken without compensation, clearly violating Amendment V of the Constitution.
The bureaucracy gained more and more power over the years until they have become so entrenched that neither the president or congress can control them. They have no fear of the federal courts because they usually rule in their favor, and if not, they shop around until they find one that will. They certainly are not afraid of the people.
The ranchers who did not understand their rights, and even some that did, were scared of retaliation from the BLM. They went along with their demands by reasoning that making some form of a living and retaining some of their land was better than losing it all. At least they would have something to pass along to their posterity.
Rules were constantly changing, too. As soon as the ranchers would agree to one set of rules, the BLM would change them again, sometimes before the first set was ever implemented. The ranchers, miners and loggers tried time after time to get along with the BLM and other federal agencies hoping they would eventually leave them alone, but they did not, and they have not, even until this day.
The BLM allowed fewer and fewer cattle on the grazing and water allotments until ranchers could not survive as a business. Many just gave up and sold out, usually to the BLM at pennies on the dollar since the land was no longer good for raising cattle. Mines that had been in existence for decades have been closed, lumber mills abandoned, and businesses that support and rely on these industries have been shuttered because they are no longer needed. To say that lives have been ruined is an understatement. These federal behemoths and environmental groups do not seem to care. Compassion is a word with no meaning.
The BLM, has gone unchecked, their power unlimited, and the ranchers, miners and loggers have dwindled and dwindled until they have become an endangered species themselves. Perhaps they should be placed on the endangered species list instead of sage grouse or the desert tortoise that is not really in danger of extinction, but is simply being used as a tool to undermine the rights of the people.
The federal government and the BLM consider private land ownership a problem that must be dealt with in the west. This has been the policy of many past presidents, but was especially true with the Obama administration. President Trump has at least listened to the people and reduced the size of national monuments, recognized water and grazing rights, to some extent, and signed into law a bill that limits the amount of land the federal government can take for national monuments.
This is something of a win, but not much of one. The federal government has still not recognized that all land belongs to the several states, except “for all places purchased by the consent of the legislature (not to exceed ten square miles) of the state in which the same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings,” as stated in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution.
Cliven Bundy and other good men and women chose to take a stand to protect our rights against an out-of-control federal government. It was never about cattle.
We must demand accountability from our elected representatives. We need to pay attention. We need to take back our rights we have let slip away. We will not get them back and preserve those we have if we do not take a stand. We need to understand, as we once did, that all authority rests with “We the People.”