The Bundy case has helped publicize the low grazing fees charged to ranchers.

Even if Cliven Bundy ends up losing what he calls his “range war,” he can take some satisfaction in knowing he is influencing politics.

After watching a small interest group get their way by using guns, some unlikely groups are emboldened to ask whether they, too, should start packing heat.

And lobby groups are pushing to raise the very low grazing fees charged by the federal government that Bundy refuses to pay.

Then there’s the new life Bundy’s example has given to secession as a concept in the United States, long thought quelled by the Civil War.

Western welfare

In an essay in U.S. News & World Report, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) president Ryan Alexander wrote, “Regardless of his convoluted read of the Nevada Constitution, Bundy owes all of us that tidy sum. And he should us owe much, much more.” She said that ranchers get an amazing deal on grazing from the federal government compared to fair market value.

“Supposedly, the Bureau of Land Management takes livestock prices, cost of cattle production and private grazing fees into account when setting the fee per head of cattle for grazing on public lands,” she wrote. “Government data pegs private grazing fees at roughly $18 per animal unit month (which represents the amount of forage [e.g. grass] a cow and her calf need for a month) throughout the West over the past two years. In Nevada, the average private land grazing fee was $15 per animal unit month. Yet this year, the fee for grazing on public land in Nevada and elsewhere is set at $1.35 per animal unit month. … Ranchers already graze cattle on public lands for a steal. Bundy is a crook, but the way the federal grazing system treats taxpayers is criminal as well.”

Alexander said if hearings on the Bundy standoff are held, as proposed by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, it will be an opportunity to get the fee issue on the national radar. “The Bundy standoff is just another thing that should bring them [grazing fees] to the top of the agenda,” she told the RN&R.

Organizations like TCS and the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco—which has sued to get higher grazing fees—believe the fees are part of a web of corporate welfare in the west for ranchers, the lumber industry and mining.

Ranchers say such critics fail to consider the changes ranchers make on the land—pipelines and fences, for instance.

In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama told the Reno News & Review his position on grazing fees: “We should work towards a reasonable compromise that protects federal land from overgrazing and recovers more of the cost of grazing programs, yet also takes into account the effects on small and medium-sized ranchers.”

As president, Obama did nothing during his first term, but finally proposed a small increase in grazing fees in 2013. His critics suggested his heart wasn’t in it. At the start of his second term, his budget included a $1 increase in grazing fees. “Even with the extra dollar, the fee fails to keep up with inflation,” the Wildlife News argued. Beef magazine, on the other hand, said, “[T]his budget proposal is further proof that this administration does not understand American agriculture.” (Interestingly, the industry publication defended the BLM, which Bundy’s followers demonize.)

The Obama proposal failed in Congress. Grazing fees have now been at the lowest level legally allowable for eight years straight.

My way

The “win” scored by Bundy supporters may have been akin to the political strategy employed by a gunman in a liquor store, but it is spurring some odd discussions.

“Should guns at political demonstrations be monopolized by conservatives, or would it benefit left-wing movements to arm themselves, too?” Carl Gibson wrote at the liberal Reader Supported News. In Nevada, he wrote, “Fervent private property rights activists came heavily armed, with AR-15 rifles, plenty of ammunition, and even bullet-proof vests, ready and willing to pull the trigger on the BLM agents if push came to shove. … [T]he BLM backed down and allowed Bundy’s cattle to graze on public land for Bundy’s own private profit.”

In Asheville, North Carolina, a resident wrote his local newspaper that armed liberals like himself “would like to invite these right wing pistol packing mommas and papas to join us in showing up with our heavy armor to stop the jackbooted guvmint agencies from shutting down Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics.”

But generally, the notion seems to be a non-starter. While Bundy’s supporters won with guns a victory they have never been able to win at the ballot box, liberals believe that box will take them further than guns.

“It’s romantic to think so, and a part of me wants to say we can match them gun for gun, but it’s just not a winning road to go down,” said Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson.

He said many of the people he is associated with have participated in protests supporting the Dann sisters—tribal members who assert ownership of much of Nevada land—that could easily have involved gunfire.

“That ended peacefully, but there could easily have been a different outcome and what would that have gotten us?” he asked, suggesting that violence would have set back the cause, not advanced it.

Cutting out

On March 23, the Republican caucus of Wisconsin’s 6th congressional district adopted, as a part of its platform, a call for “our right to secede, passing legislation affirming this to the U.S. Federal Government.” The secession plank will also be voted on at the Wisconsin Republican State Convention in May.

The Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854 and went on to win the presidency for the first time under Abraham Lincoln, whose election prompted the secession of southern states and the Civil War. According to Green Bay columnist Bill Lueders, when the resolution was discussed, Lincoln was attacked by one delegate and a state senator commented, “Who’d have ever thought you’d be at a Republican function and have to defend Abraham Lincoln?”

Political reporters had difficulty knowing what to make of the development. A column in the state’s Madison Capitol Times ran under the headline, “Secession? Really? Who’s running this GOP show?”

Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank wrote, “Called the ’state sovereignty’ resolution, it is driven by the same sentiment that drives Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy to ignore federal law and court orders on grounds that they do not apply in the ’sovereign state of Nevada’.”

Milbank suggested the development had been fostered by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Heller encouraging Bundy. He specifically mentioned Heller threatening the Bureau of Land Management for supposedly abusing a “law abiding” rancher who admits breaking the law.

There are two secession organizations operating in California and an Alaska petition calling for secession and reunification with Russia has gathered more than 40,000 signatures in that state.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...