What kind of landowner lets a tenant stay on his property for two decades without paying?
When Cliven Bundy’s standoff with federal land managers came up last weekend at a gathering of Republicans in the small farm and ranch town of Scobey, Mont., that was the prevailing question. And it was a rhetorical one.
Cut away the misplaced rhetoric about freedom (spouted mostly by people who wouldn’t know a steer from a heifer), the dangerous over-use of force by federal agents, the ludicrous spectacle of “free-speech zones,” and the situation is simple: Bundy is extracting a valuable use from land that does not belong to him, and is refusing to pay the owner (i.e., the American taxpayer) for that use.
He is a squatter, a right-wing version of the dreadlocked freegan who sets up living quarters in an abandoned building in Brooklyn. If everyone did as Bundy does, the concept of property rights would be diminished.
Testing Bundy’s claim is simple. If he has a right to do what he is doing on public land to which he does not have title, then so should you and I. What would happen if a hundred other people each put a hundred head of cattle on the same property? The grass would run out; every animal would, eventually, starve.
This “tragedy of the commons” — the depletion of resources that occurs when ranching, farming, timbering, or drilling happen on the same public land without a means to restrict and compensate for that access — is something that grazing rules on BLM property are meant to address. And it works pretty well. Most ranchers who lease BLM land pay a per-head fee (this year, $1.35 per animal unit month) and live a life with no armed standoffs.
Of course, an important corollary of this theory is that one need not pay anything for non-consumptive uses of the land, other than federal income taxes. Mr. Bundy and everyone else have a right to take a hike on it, ride a horse on it, and exercise First Amendment (and Second Amendment) rights on it. It’s just that he cannot unilaterally annex it to his modest one-quarter-section (160-acre) ranch to create a mega-ranch.
That said, Bundy’s truculence has created one positive outcome. It has focused the wider public’s attention on a fact that few in America’s urban centers have to grapple with: that in most of the largest states of the union, an enormous amount of land is publicly owned, and under the control of an alphabet soup of federal agencies.
How many people had never heard the abbreviation BLM before this episode? Yet this obscure outfit — along with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service — calls the shots on millions of acres. Its bureaucrats have the power to make or break the livelihoods of both citizens like Mr. Bundy and entire communities in the rural West that depend on natural resources harvested from or raised on federal land.
How is it doing as the country’s largest landowner? Pretty darn poorly.