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Steve Haycox: If he'd had a clue, Bundy might have sparked another Sagebrush Rebellion

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 30, 2014

Cliven Bundy doesn't understand something about "federal overreach." And if he wasn't such a deadbeat scofflaw and unreconstructed social miscreant he might have started another Sagebrush Rebellion. The last one fully enveloped Alaska at a time when resentment of federal presence in Alaska ran as high as it ever has.

Bundy is the fellow with the Nevada ranch who's been running cattle on Bureau of Land Management acreage for 20 years while refusing to pay his grazing fees; he claims the BLM has no authority because the federal government has no constitutional right to the land he is using. There are a host of ironies in his story, not the least of which is that if the federal government didn't own the land and the BLM didn't have any authority, all the land around him would be in private hands and Bundy would have to pay close to 10 times what the BLM is charging him to run his cattle.

Somewhere in his background Bundy likely learned that for over a hundred years ranchers ran cattle on the public lands in the American West without much hindrance. The normal pattern was for ranchers to get title to and fence a small homestead in a creek bottom, and let their herd range the public lands freely, identifying the animals by branding. In 1918 the U.S. Supreme Court held that such customary use of the public's land was a privilege, and conferred no right in federal property. Some ranchers acquired vast herds, and before 1934, Congress did not address the issue, mostly in deference to the power of the Western cattle barons.

With the rise of conservation sentiment in the Progressive Era, the U.S. Forest Service began to charge cattlemen a low fee per animal (animal unit month, AUM) for use of its Western lands (one-third of Forest Service land is not forested), in order to limit the number of cattle, so as to protect the land. Then, in 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, named for Colorado states-rights champion Edward Taylor, extending the AUM fee system throughout the West, again mostly for conservation. Ranchers, naturally, were unhappy, but because the fees were very low, acquiesced.

In 1976, as part of the new, post-war environmental movement, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, rationalizing and tightening Western land policies, and imposing more oversight and some new constraints. The Western reaction was the Sagebrush Rebellion of the early 1980s, started when the Nevada Legislature passed a measure asserting that the federal government was only a "trustee" of the land, and that the land actually belonged to the states. The Nevada Supreme Court found that in fact the federal government did own the land, based on the surrender by the original states of their Western land claims to the federal government in 1781, and on Article IV of the U.S. Constitution that establishes Congress' jurisdiction over Western lands. In the face of that, Nevada and most other Western states, including Alaska, passed resolutions calling for a transfer of the public lands to the states. In Alaska it was called the Tundra Rebellion.

The Tundra Rebellion came just after passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), following a long, rancorous and highly visible battle in Congress that left many Alaskans feeling that the independence gained with statehood had been stolen back by the feds. In 1980 Alaska voters, 46,705-45,598, created by initiative an Alaska Statehood Commission to "study the status of Alaska within the United States." The vote was an expression of frustration, and the commission an expensive exercise in futility: After three years, it recommended that Alaska stay in the Union, as if there were any other real alternative.

For Alaskans then and now, the problem is the same as it has been for a century for Western ranchers: Reconciliation of the apparent conflict between the libertarian yearning for unfettered freedom and the legitimate and necessary power of the federal government as an expression of the will of the American people. If there is to be a nation, and it's to be something approaching a democracy, we must each learn to transcend our individual imperium for the sake of that greater good.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox


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