The takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon appears to be more than just a protest of the impending imprisonment of two ranchers who set fires that spread into public lands. The armed demonstrators are led by Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven, has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the federal Bureau of Land Management to own some public lands or to regulate their use for grazing. But the government is giving the Bundy family a pretty good deal on the grazing rights it refuses to pay for.
In 1993, the bureau declined to renew Cliven Bundy’s grazing permits in parts of Nevada that were reserved for a threatened desert tortoise. But Bundy continued grazing his cattle there anyway and refused to pay any fines or fees. He claimed that the land really belonged to him, so why should he have to pay over $1 million in fines?
Now his son has furthered the fight by seizing the Oregon refuge. In a news conference Sunday, Ammon Bundy explained that he was there in protest of the “unconstitutional transactions of land rights and water rights.”
Those transactions, though, can be a pretty good deal, regardless of their constitutionality. According to a 2015 report by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Bureau of Land Management’s fees for grazing cattle on public land are much lower than the fees charged by private landowners, and they’ve only become cheaper in recent years.
In 2012, the bureau’s fees for grazing were 93 percent cheaper than the average market rate in 16 Western states ($1.35 versus $20.10 per AUM, which is a fancy acronym for the amount of land needed to support a cow and her calf for a month1).
The bureau’s fees are so much lower than the market price in part because its fees are set at a flat, national rate and can’t be adjusted to match demand in local markets. Plus, the bureau sets that national grazing price using a formula, rather than any kind of bidding system or market appraisals, as some other federal agencies with higher prices2 do. As a result, in 2014, grazing fees covered only 15 percent of the bureau’s costs to maintain grazing lands. The rest of the cost is made up in federal appropriations and covered by taxpayers.
So getting to buy grazing rights from the Bureau of Land Management is a steal, unless, like the Bundys, you think the government is trying to charge you for what’s rightfully yours. Or, at the very least, not rightfully theirs. The Bundys claim the land because their ancestors worked on it before the bureau even existed.
The federal government owns over 80 percent of all land in the Bundys’ home state of Nevada and over half of all the land in Oregon. If that land were privately owned, the market price for grazing rights might be lower than it is today, as more private land owners competed with each other. But, for now, the government is using its clout to lower costs for ranchers, if they’re willing to accept the aid.