The battle between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might be viewed as an overly aggressive federal bureaucracy enforcing misguided environmental regulations vs. an oppressed individual and his overly enthusiastic supporters with guns.
However, like the ongoing battles in California between farmers and environmentalists over water, the Nevada story is more complex than that. The issues are not divided neatly along left-right political lines. In both cases, the property rights issues are complicated, and the federal government has long subsidized the use of land and water resources in the West. The first step toward a permanent solution in both cases is to revive federalism. That is, to transfer federal assets to state governments and the private sector.
To understand the Nevada situation, it is useful to consider the history of federal land ownership in the West. From an essay by Randal O’Toole and myself:
“From the founding of the nation, the federal government began accumulating large tracts of land . . . As the federal government was accumulating land, it was also trying to unload it. The government's general policy for more than a century was to sell or transfer its western lands to settlers, railroad companies, and state governments . . . With the rise of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, federal policy began to change toward land retention and land additions. Progressives believed that federal agencies would manage western lands better than states, businesses, or individuals.”
It turned out that the Progressives were dead wrong. In his book Public Lands and Private Rights, Robert H. Nelson describes how the Progressive ideas of scientific management and federal land planning have failed repeatedly. The last century of federal land management has been “filled with laws that had lofty purposes and achieved dismal results,” he concludes. He also notes that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.” Federal policymakers should start fixing that anomaly.
The BLM faces a complex task in juggling all the competing uses of its timberlands, rangelands, minerals, watersheds, wildlife, water, and other resources located across a huge area. Livestock grazing, timber cutting, and mineral extraction all potentially conflict with wildlife habitat, watershed protection, and outdoor recreation.
The situation is made worse by BLM officials operating in a nonmarket environment. Essentially, they run a giant socialist enterprise in trying to centrally plan vast lands and resources. The decisions the agency makes are often infuriating to Westerners because they are made by unaccountable officials on the other side of the country.
The solution is to transfer most federal lands in Nevada to the State of Nevada. Charges for the use of the land—such as grazing fees—should be set in the marketplace. Where feasible, environmentally significant land should be owned and managed by private non-profit land trusts, as discussed here. But these sorts of decisions should be made by the Nevada legislature. Politicians in Washington lack the knowledge to make the crucial land-use decisions that affect the lives of people such as Cliven Bundy, and they are far too distracted with all the other issues on the federal agenda.