Recent range conflicts reveal dire need for legislative reform

Apr 18, 2014
by WLJ

The recent clash between the federal government and a cattle ranching family over grazing rights didn’t spring up out of the Nevada desert dust. This is according to Public Lands Council (PLC) and its sister organization, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), organizations representing the 22,000 ranchers who utilize public lands. While PLC and NCBA acknowledged the story has many intricacies, the two organizations made the following statement for WLJ—indicating that the situation has brought to the public eye many longstanding, West-wide challenges facing ranching families:

“Whatever the details may be surrounding the federal government’s attempted impoundment of the Bundy family’s cattle, PLC and NCBA do not condone acting outside of the law—whether it’s a citizen or a government agency. However, we are well aware that many western ranching families are finding themselves with their backs against the wall due to over-regulation by the federal government. This over-regulation is often prompted by outdated laws and driven by lawsuits by radical special interest groups.

“The event at hand provides the opportunity to explain some of the difficulties faced by all ranchers who rely on public lands managed by the federal government. An increasingly heavy-handed government is smothering their private property rights and ability to continue making a living. Laws and regulations are being used to place values like ‘wildlife preservation’ over human well-being. For example, is it right that ranching families should be run off the range because a federal agency falsely claimed that grazing harms a ‘threatened’ tortoise, spotted owl, delta smelt, or sage grouse? This scenario is even more painful where there is simply no evidence that well-managed livestock grazing has any adverse impact on these species or the environment. However, all the federal government has to do is allege some adverse impact and the rancher is forced to bear the burden of proof. The constitutional principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ seems to be disposable in cases where the federal government or a radical agenda-driven group claims they are protecting a plant, mushroom, or snail.

“PLC and NCBA are fully engaged every day on behalf of ranchers, defending private property rights and the families and communities that depend on them. We do so through our work with all three branches of government, using the framework set forth by our founding fathers and enshrined in our Constitution. The rule of law is the only sure safeguard to our private property rights—including grazing rights. But what is the ‘rule of law?’ Is it a framework of principles, or does it mean bowing down to every regulation put forth by a government, no matter how destructive?

“Too often, the management of the western public lands seems to be at the pleasure of people far disconnected from the land. Looking at the history of our public lands— which cover half of the 11 contiguous western states—it wasn’t always ‘federal land.’ Many ranching families on the range today settled there generations ago, preceding the existence of the ‘federal land management’ agencies. While they never gained ownership of all the lands they settled and grazed their livestock on, those ranching families did gain grazing rights based on their historic use. These grazing rights are crucial to their operations and constitute real property interests. They are protected by the Taylor Grazing Act and other laws, and are still the lifeblood of thousands of rural economies and cultures. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (TGA) was passed at the behest of the ranching industry in order to give ranchers the right to exclude others from the ranges they historically used. This established what is known as “preference rights.” Enactment of the TGA not only protected the range from over-grazing, but also established property rights in what was formerly a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario. This is statute we fiercely guard.

Additional laws protect ranchers’ ability to graze the public lands, known as ‘multiple-use’ statutes. They require that the public lands be managed for multiple purposes in a way that best meets the needs of the American people. Grazing is one of those purposes. It makes use of a product not consumable by humans—grass—and coverts it into a form of high quality protein for consumers in America and around the world. Well-managed livestock grazing also contributes to healthy and abundant wildlife habitat, healthy watersheds and open space.

“Despite the protection of livestock grazing under the various statutes, and despite the scientifically proven benefits of well-managed grazing, over time the government has forced decreases in grazing. In fact, public land grazing has decreased by over 50 percent since 1970. A growing number of stringent laws and regulations meant to guide the ‘management’ of public lands has caused analysis paralysis and litigation by radical environmental groups who oppose productive uses such as grazing.

“One of the most damaging laws to ranchers, both on public and private lands, is the ‘Endangered Species Act’ (ESA). This law has been used to wipe out generations-old family ranching operations. Like many laws, the ESA was passed with good intentions but after 40 years is proving to be outmoded and in serious need of updating. Decisions to remove livestock in the name of preservation of the desert tortoise, as happened to Cliven Bundy’s neighbors, is just one example of the severe damage caused by ESA. The spotted owl destroyed the timber industry in the Northwest, and the sage grouse is threatening to do the same to the ranching industry West-wide. ESA regulations make illegal the ‘harassment’ of a ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ species. If your cow, for example, steps foot in a pasture where a listed species is thought to exist, a rancher could face jail time and up to $100,000 in fines. Any passerby who claims that that rancher is harassing a listed species can sue—on the rancher’s own dime. This incredible liability is devastating to individual ranching families and is causing rural communities in the West to whither on the vine.

“The fact that laws like the ESA are being used to harm ranching families is unacceptable, which is why we have been working with Congress to reform the ESA as quickly as possible. We hope that the recent turn of events prompts immediate action by our elected officials.

“Many ranchers are facing desperate situations in these times of over-regulation, combined in many places with severe drought and fallout from catastrophic wildfire. We believe that the best way to fight back is through the legal channels constructed by our founding fathers. This is what we engage in every day, whether we’re fighting for legislative reform or taking the federal agencies to court. We are blessed to be armed with a Constitution that allows us to correct policies and redress our grievances without violence. PLC and NCBA will not give up that fight.” — WLJ