The Oregon Militia's Sworn #BLM Enemy Is Really a Handout to Ranchers
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The Oregon Militia's Sworn #BLM Enemy Is Really a Handout to Ranchers

A federal agency created at the behest of the ranching industry still has its back.
January 6, 2016, 12:00pm

The Bundy militia, the handful of anti-government types currently having a sleepover party in a wildlife refuge visitor's center, wants an end to the "tyranny" of the federal government's oversight of public lands. Their plan mainly seems to be shepherding in a new era of unregulated, unchecked natural resource extraction and exploitation. Their main target is the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that has found an unlikely spotlight since rancher Cliven Bundy refused to pay a BLM bill and called it a revolution.

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In a highly classy and certainly not racist move, they've adopted the #BLM hashtag.

The BLM is an interesting target. For the Bundy clan, it happens to make for an especially good foe because it's a relatively unknown agency. Most of its lands are far away from major population centers and consist of deserts and grasslands—not exactly destinations. It's a bit like the US Forest Service but without the forests.

The Bundys want us to think that the BLM is, like the National Park Service, tasked with preservation, an arbiter of wilderness (they hate wilderness). They would like us to think that the BLM's mission involves keeping good folk like the Bundys from blindly tearing shit up like true Americans.

The truth is closer to the opposite of this. While providing recreation opporitunities and protecting open-space is part of its mission, the BLM is of any federal land agency the most concerned with facilitating exploitation: mining, drilling, grazing. The BLM lands surrounding my old home in southwest Colorado (by Cortez at the Utah border), for example, even have the additional status of being a "national monument"—sort of like a national park but without the same protections—and yet you'd have a hard time throwing a stone without it clanking against a pipeline or piece of machinery. (The target there is mostly carbon dioxide, which is indeed a thing drilled for.)

Across the border in Utah, it just gets worse with the open-pit nightmare of the Lisbon Valley Mine. This occurs on BLM land:

Image: lisbonvalley.com

In California, BLM land hosts 595 different oil leases, responsible for 15,800,000 billions of production annually. About 500,000 barrels a day. The federal government, the landowner (you), gets about 12 percent in royalties from oil and gas sales, a rate that hasn't be updated since 1920.

Here's an aerial shot of the Kern River Oil Field. It is certainly liberated.

And the Bundys demand more.

The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934

To see the fundamental disconnect between the militia's campaign and reality, we need to look briefly at the origins of the BLM. There was a time when the agency didn't exist and ranchers had their rangeland utopia. Prior to 1934, some 80 million acres of western lands were just there for the taking. This was the homesteading era, and, indeed, ranchers took and took and took. Care to guess how this went?

After decades of steady rangeland deterioration, and increasing violence among cattle ranchers, it became clear that the historical system of, well, no system wasn't sustainable; not "unsustainable" in the environmentalist sense (or not directly), but in the sense of the continuation of ranching as a viable economic activity. In the words of BLM historian Marion Clawson, "a large part of the public lands had already suffered serious, accelerated erosion, largely (but not wholly) as a result of uncontrolled grazing." Soon there would be literally nothing to graze at all.

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Since cattlemen first began appearing in the West, attracted by the promise of free grazing land, access to that free land was governed mostly by custom. This didn't work out so well, as Wyoming historian Russel L. Tanner writes in "Leasing the Public Range: The Taylor Grazing Act and the BLM.":

that, as millions of sheep were gradually introduced to Wyoming ranges, to a decade and a half of raids on sheep camps by cattlemen. Fifteen sheepmen and a boy and perhaps 10,000 sheep were killed. Successful prosecution of perpetrators after the Spring Creek Raid in 1909 finally put an end to the violence. Still, stock grazers of all stripes—sheepmen with large and small flocks and cattle ranchers with large and small herds—were economically insecure in an unregulated system.

However, the feds still didn't really want anything to do with the whole mess, and, beginning in 1879, a series of proposals were made to offer up the land to either the states or private buyers for a nickel an acre or less—basically giving it away.

But, since the land was then free, or at least unmanaged by a formal entity, these proposals had little appeal and so things continued to deteriorate across the West. A peculiar sort of stalemate emerged as ranchers continued to claim public lands via unauthorized and illegal fencing while resisting reciprocal efforts by the federal government to give all of the same land away for next to nothing. In Wyoming, private lands made up only about 16 percent of the entire state in 1919, despite these efforts.

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For ranchers, the ideal seemed to be something like private stakes on public land. All rewards and no responsibility.

This is exactly what the ranchers won, and it's what they continue to enjoy.

In the words of Encyclopedia of the Great Plains editor David J Wishart, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was enacted to, "stop injury to the public lands; provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; and stabilize the livestock industry dependent on the public range."

Part of the initial goal, according to a BLM history, was to increase rangeland productivity. More cows in less space.

"The act as amended in 1936 established grazing districts on the vacant, unappropriated and unreserved lands of the public domain: fifty-nine districts encompassing 168 million acres of federal land and 97 million acres otherwise owned," Wishart continues. "The act, as amended in 1939, established grazing advisory boards, primarily composed of livestock owners."

The Act created what was then known as the Grazing Service, which administered public lands in parcels and collected fees. These fees initially were meant to cover administrative costs, but, as time went on, and the Grazing Service became the BLM, grazing fees essentially came under the control of the ranching industry. Nowadays the BLM takes in around $12 million annually in revenue while spending some $80 million in a role that amounts to being a public caretaker of resources exploited by private entities (ranchers, miners, drillers).

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The difference is covered by American taxpayers as the BLM continues to spend more on maintaining rangelands than it takes in as income from those who profit from those lands.

Freeing the land from whom?

The map below is of the rangelands surrounding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where the Bundys are making their stand, which has so far mostly been ignored by the feds.

The areas with green striping are grazing parcels. They belong to ranchers that are not the Bundys. The lease named "big bird" looks to be the closest to the Bundy's occupation. According to BLM records, it belongs to "Golden Rule Farms" of Christmas Valley, Oregon. Alkali, the next lease over, belongs to Charles, Marjorie, and Darwin Dunten. The rangeland to the west is, ironically enough, allocated to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

When the militia says things like "freeing the land," what it really means is less freeing the land from the BLM than it is in freeing the land from other ranchers (the sort that do actual ranching) who own leases on BLM land.

A most noble plan.