I’ve written about the strange tale of Cliven Bundy and his rip off of American taxpayers on these pages before, so over the past few weeks I’ve watched the even stranger saga of his sons leading an armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Harney County, Oregon, with some interest.
There are so many details about this story of the Malheur occupation that are paradoxical. The occupiers say they want to return the lands to local control, yet no Harney County residents are among their ranks and they have not left despite local requests to leave. The Hammond family, the father and son whose conviction and 5-year sentence (for arson that damaged taxpayer-owned lands) inspired the occupiers, do not support the occupation. The occupiers claim they are peaceful protesters, yet they are armed. And of course there is the now-famous request for snacks and supplies from these tough and rugged militia men, to be delivered by the federal government in the form of the U.S. Postal Service.
But there is no contradiction in the form of their action and their goals. Just as they are using a federal building and lands for themselves, Ammon Bundy and his fellow scofflaws want to use other taxpayer-owned public lands without restriction or (at least for the Bundys) without paying fees. Cliven Bundy owes the American taxpayers $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties, a sum far below the market value of the land he used illegally for decades. And now, Ammon Bundy and the Oregon occupiers are trying to recruit ranchers to stop paying grazing fees for their use of taxpayer-owned land, asking other ranchers to abandon their contracts. In the name of wanting a free ride, they are taking another free ride.
But none of this is free to the rest of us taxpayers. Those of us who have not taken up arms to occupy a federal building paid for federal employees threatened by the standoff not to work. In addition, there’s the rising costs of law enforcement efforts related to the standoff (some of which is federal, shared by all of us, some shared only by Harney County and state of Oregon taxpayers). But the larger expense comes from the giveaway of federal lands to ranchers through our outdated and underpriced system of grazing permits that the Bundys are intent on actually making even worse.
The Bureau of Land Management provides nearly 18,000 permits to ranchers to graze their livestock, mainly cattle or sheep, on taxpayer-owned lands throughout the West. These permits, which are good for 10 years and are almost always renewed, can be had for a mere $1.69 per animal unit month. That measurement represents the amount of forage (e.g. grass) a cow and her calf need for a month. This rock-bottom price is far below market rates for grazing on private lands, which range from $9 to $20 per animal unit month in Western states with significant amount of federal lands. So what Ammon Bundy and his hostage-taking friends are protesting is the right to get for free what they already get at a deep discount.
The cost ranchers pay to graze on public lands was first set in 1966, at $1.23 per animal unit month, in line with rates to graze on private land. Now at $1.69, ranchers have endured a whopping 36-cent increase over the last 49 years! At current inflation rates, we should have hit at least $9 per animal unit month. But we would not have made it this far if it was not for President Reagan, who in 1986 issued an executive order to set a price floor of $1.35 for the grazing fee. Without this floor, who knows how low the fees would have gone. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found the annual fee had been set at the floor 16 times and has never exceeded $2.00! All the while, prices to graze on private lands have substantially increased.
On top of these massive grazing subsidies, ranchers also benefit from a slew of federal programs. From highly subsidized irrigation projects to federally subsidized crop insurance to the killing of predators through the Wildlife Services program to annual disaster programs that pay for livestock losses and everything in between. And if the Bundys and their crew owned that land, they would have to maintain it and pay taxes on it.
All in all, it is clearly a sweetheart deal to graze on federal lands.
The vast, vast majority of ranchers using public lands are law abiding, responsible citizens. It’s just that the law gives them a trough full of subsidies at taxpayer expense. The Bundy bunch, on the other hand, are not only in denial of the handouts they get, they are jeopardizing the safety and livelihoods of dozens of hardworking American taxpayers.
Photo credit: CAFNR via flickr