Nevada dispute illustrates conflicting principles at stake with federal lands

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

The Cliven Bundy situation in Nevada is a complicated one in that a number of principles are in conflict.

As most commentators, including those sympathetic to his cause, have accurately pointed out, Bundy is on legally indefensible ground. Like it or not, the land on which his cows were grazing is indeed owned by the federal government, which is legally entitled to charge the grazing fees Bundy has refused to pay. Several courts of law have repeatedly ruled as much. Principled or not, his actions were illegal.

But this only serves to bring up a quandary with which societies that seek to govern themselves by rule of law have struggled for centuries: At what point is a law no longer morally valid? Rosa Parks clearly broke the law in committing the act for which she became a household name, as did those who harbored fugitive slaves and anyone who took up arms against the King of England in the 1770s.

One can quote philosophers from St. Augustine to Burke about the moral limits of bad law. But where does one draw the line?

It’s amusing, for instance, to read liberal commentators wax on about the illegitimacy of Bundy’s actions when their own views were largely brewed in the ridiculous acts of social rebellion in the 1960s.

Wherever the line is drawn, the idea of rule by law is a rather sacrosanct one in western society, and it should be. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American … let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”

Of course, here’s the thing: That needs to apply to the government as well.

One problem I think many Bundy sympathizers have with the whole situation is watching armored vehicles and sniper teams descend upon this guy’s cow herd while other parts of the Obama administration blithely determine for themselves what laws to enforce and which to ignore.

To wit, the selective application designed to make the round peg of Obamacare fit the square hole of economic reality or the refusal to enforce immigration and drug laws. 

Another paradox centers on property rights. It can be argued correctly that in grazing cattle on this land without paying the requisite fees, Bundy was trespassing, or violating the property rights of the federal government. Does it follow that as the owner of the land, the federal government is within its rights to institute policies the consequences of which include interference with one’s livelihood to the point of its destruction?

One of the problems inherent with government ownership of land is that its management invariably becomes politically directed, subject less to the national interest and more to political whims, litigation and donors. I mean, really, what is in the greater national interest: food and energy production or the longevity of an obscure species of tortoise?

There’s little question the various federal agencies running public lands have often been bad landlords. They have routinely used dubious legal hammers like the Endangered Species Act to arbitrarily crowd out productive users of those lands — chiefly ranchers and energy producers — they deem politically undesirable with little regard to the rights of those users. Here in Western Colorado, the BLM is in the beginning stages of an environmental study to justify, at the behest of a friendly lobby group, the cancellation of several oil and gas leases purchased in good faith by a number of different energy companies dating back to 1993.

How can one reasonably be expected to trust the federal landlords when they routinely renege on promises in fealty to extremism?

All this starkly illustrates the long-held conservative principle that private property and freedom are inextricably linked. Someone once wrote (was it Lord Acton?): “A people averse to the institution of private property is without the first element of freedom.”

Sir Henry Maine told us, “Nobody is at liberty to attack several [private] property and to say at the same time that he values civilization. The history of the two cannot be disentangled.” And Russell Kirk put it most succinctly when he wrote, “Separate property from private possession and Leviathan becomes master of all.”

Cliven Bundy might be in the wrong, but it’s well past time to take a serious, realistic look at ways to loosen federal control over vast swaths of the West.