End the Western Land Wars

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning on Nevada cattle ranchers other than Cliven Bundy who are being denied access to public grazing lands on the pretext of drought, even though northern Nevada’s grasslands have grown robustly this year (in part because northern California and Nevada haven’t been nearly as parched as southern California).  Here’s the lede to “Grazing Limits Feed Tension in Nevada”:

BATTLE MOUNTAIN, Nev.—Rancher Pete Tomera slowed his pickup truck on a dusty mountain road one day last week and swept an arm toward tall green grass blowing in the wind: “Man, look at all the feed a cow could eat,” he said.

Since last summer, Mr. Tomera’s 1,800 cows have been banished from these mountains in northern Nevada, part of a clampdown by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management against grazing on federal lands during an extended drought. An additional 500 head of cattle owned by two other ranching families have been ordered off a roughly 350,000-acre grazing allotment managed by the BLM in the Shoshone Range about 10 miles to the south of this town. The animals have been put out to private pastures or fed hay at far greater cost than on the public land.

The story helpfully explains that various environmental groups have lobbied the Department of the Interior to constrict access to grazing lands.  Here’s a prediction: if the predicted El Nino delivers higher than normal rainfall to California and northern Nevada next year, the enviro groups will lobby to continue restricting access to grazing land because they are too wet and will be tramped by the cattle.

The real scandal here is that the federal government persists in controlling so much of the land area of the western states (see chart below) rather than devolving the land to state or private ownership, as was done will all eastern states in the 19th century.  This is the subject of my Forbes.com column this week, “Washington Versus the People: The Solution to Today’s Land Wars,” which ledes thus:

The controversy between the federal government and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy appears to have receded from the front pages for the moment, but it is useful to step back and ask a simple question: how come these highly charged political standoffs seldom if ever occur in New York, or Pennsylvania, or Indiana?  How come there is no “Cornbelt Rebellion” to match up with the west’s “Sagebrush Rebellion”?

The answer is simple: the federal government owns very little of the land in the eastern United States.  Except for a few national parks and military bases, virtually all of the land east of the Mississippi River is privately owned, and while private land everywhere is subject to numerous regulations, private owners don’t have to ask permission or obtains leases from federal government bureaucrats to use their land.  This is one reason the natural gas boom has occurred so rapidly in Pennsylvania and Texas, while gas production continues to lag on federal land out west.

I go on in the column (as the saying goes, read the whole thing) to discuss the work of Utah state Representative Ken Ivory, who is very effectively spearheading the latest chapter of the Sagebrush Rebellion.  We caught up with Ken in Washington DC recently, and taped this short comment exclusively for Power Line:

Federal land2 copy

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