By James Surpwicki, The New Yorker, January 25, 2016
Ammon Bundy's father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, left, is confronted by activist Tork Rains while addressing a crowd at the Nevada State Legislature building to rally behind a bill seeking to reclaim land from the federal government Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Carson City, Nev. Bundy garnered national attention a year ago when he and armed supporters engaged in a showdown with federal authorities. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Jason Bean)
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed militia that stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in Oregon, has a simple solution for fixing the economy of the West: get the federal government out of the way. His group’s chief demand is that the federal government hand over all of Malheur to local control. The ultimate goal, he says, is “to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining.” Bundy’s tactics make him easy to dismiss as a kook, but his ideology is squarely in the mainstream of Western conservatism, with its hostility to government ownership, skepticism about environmental rules, and conviction that individual enterprise is being strangled by government regulations.
Such thinking has a long history in the region. At the turn of the last century, there was vehement opposition to the creation of national parks, which were seen as a waste of land that could be used for logging, mining, and ranching. Malheur itself, founded in 1908, was the site of serious political conflict in the nineteen-twenties: Oregonians wanted it closed down, so that Lake Malheur could be drained and the land sold off to farmers. In the seventies, during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, states across the region attempted to seize control of land from the federal government, which owns close to half of all land in the West. The Sagebrush Rebellion ultimately fizzled, but it helped instill the idea that federal land ownership is an economic blight, an idea that’s become more and more popular with Republicans as environmental regulations and restrictions on land use have proliferated. Organizations like the Koch-funded American Lands Council are working to help local governments reclaim some control of public land.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, sponsored an amendment last March supporting the selling, trading, and transfer of federal land to the states. Ted Cruz has said that the U.S. should be prohibited from owning more than fifty per cent of the land in any state.
The libertarian appeal of the “take back the land” rhetoric masks a fundamental contradiction: the West has flourished because of the federal government’s help, not in spite of it. No region’s economy has depended more on subsidies and taxpayer-funded investment. In the nineteenth century, the Homestead Act handed out free land to settlers, and the transcontinental railroad was built thanks to cheap land grants and huge government outlays. The federal government has played a vital role in managing the Western watershed, while investing billions of dollars in dams and other public infrastructure. As the historian Gerald Nash has shown, the West’s postwar boom was jump-started by money the government poured into the region during the Second World War.
Furthermore, Bundy’s beloved ranching, mining, and logging industries have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of government largesse. The grazing fees that the government charges ranchers have barely budged in forty years, thanks to the political power of the Western lobby. The Obama Administration did manage a rate hike last year, but, adjusted for inflation, the current price is still dramatically lower than it was in 1978. And the government is lenient about collecting fees. Bundy’s father, Cliven, was more than a million dollars in arrears before action was taken against him, last year, resulting in the first Bundy standoff.
Another irony is that it’s far from clear that local control would be an economic panacea for ranchers and loggers. Fees on state-owned land tend to be considerably higher than on federal land, in part because most state governments are legally required to maximize the value of their public land, and the federal government isn’t. And states would have to pay for all the upkeep the feds now handle, which is why a number of studies have concluded that reclamation would increase costs, rather than shrink them. A 2012 study, for instance, found that taking back federal land would cost Utah two hundred and seventy-five million dollars a year.
So much for rugged individualism. But the reclamation movement isn’t deluded just about the West’s reliance on the federal government. It also has a completely outdated vision of the Western economy. In its view, land is valuable primarily because of what you can take out of it—minerals, oil and gas, timber, food. But, while these industries were crucial to the development of the West, their importance is shrinking. Grazing on federal land, for instance, accounts for less than one per cent of total income and employment in most of the region, according to the economist Thomas Power. Meanwhile, recreation and tourism have become ever more important.
In that sense, it’s all too fitting that the Bundy group has targeted a wildlife refuge, a symbol of the new, service-based economy it’s so unhappy with. But the transformation of the West, though it’s been helped by federal policy, is ultimately the result of much bigger demographic, economic, and cultural shifts, which have moved the West (and, indeed, the U.S.) away from an economy based on extractive, environmentally damaging industries. Demonizing the federal government and trying to resuscitate the past may have its demagogic appeal. But the Old West is gone, and it isn’t coming back.