Ranchers And The Federal Government: The Long History Of Conflict

The controversy over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's fight with the federal government seems to have come out of nowhere. It, however, is just the latest skirmish in a fight that's goes back 150 years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. In the past three weeks, a man named Cliven Bundy went from anonymity to national fame to notoriety. Bundy is the Nevada rancher who stopped the Bureau of Land Management from removing his cattle from federal land. He hadn't paid his grazing fees. Bundy lost many allies when he started marking remarks about slavery, but there's a deeper story here. Bundy's fight is the latest skirmish in a long conflict between ranchers and the federal government. NPR's Ted Robbins reminds us how it all began.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Let's go back to the decades after the Civil War. The Homestead Act is in effect. It gives 160 acres of public land to anyone who settles it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED RIVER")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Thomas Dunson) This is it. This is where we start growing good beef.

ROBBINS: With that, John Wayne sets up his livestock operation in the 1948 film "Red River." In Florida or Nebraska - or even East Texas, where the movie is set - one of those 160 acres will feed 160 head of cattle. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The film "Red River" is set in South Texas.] In large parts of the West, the entire 160 acres will feed just one cow and calf.

PAUL STARRS: It's desert land or semi-arid land, and it takes a lot of acres to feed one animal over the course of the year.

ROBBINS: Paul Starrs is a geography professor at the University of Nevada-Reno. Eventually, ranchers began paying grazing fees to lease vast tracts of federal land for their livestock. In exchange, they submitted to government oversight. That, says Starrs, created fundamental tension.

STARRS: When you are using somebody else's land for your livelihood, that puts you in a very dependent relationship. And livestock ranchers are, in my experience, pretty savvy people. And they don't like that uncertainty. Nobody really likes uncertainty.

ROBBINS: The uncertainty grew with the public's interest in protecting the land. The Endangered Species Act, for instance, restricts land use to protect habitat. That's one reason Cliven Bundy gives for refusing to pay his grazing fees for 20 years. His resistance gained him supporters until he undercut himself by making racist remarks.

Tim Duferrena is not a fan of Cliven Bundy's tactics. He's been a Nevada rancher for 50 years. For one thing, Duferrena wouldn't think of not paying his grazing fees.

TIM DUFERRENA: It's federal land. Until it's changed, it's federal. So that's - that's the law; that's what it is.

ROBBINS: Notice he said until it's changed. For some, a burr under the saddle is simply the amount of land the government owns - about half of 13 Western states. In Nevada, it owns more than 80 percent. Utah passed a law demanding the federal government turn over its land. It's an old dispute, and Tim Duferrena is thoughtful about it.

DUFERRENA: I hate to straddle the fence on you, but I come down on both sides. I like the idea of state-regulated because theoretically, they should be - the state is more in touch with what's going on in each individual state than the federal government.

ROBBINS: On the other hand, it's expensive to fight wild fires, to run national parks, and to manage mining rights. Duferrena worries those costs might force states to sell the land. That could bring more development - and more people.

DUFERRENA: I still believe in public land and I'd hate to see it sold or, you know, go out of the public hands.

ROBBINS: Ranchers see themselves as stewards of public lands. University of Nevada Professor Paul Starrs says it's an idea that's been nurtured by Hollywood and ranchers.

STARRS: And they have done a great job of emphasizing the legend rather than the fact.

ROBBINS: The fact is, it's a paradox being a rugged individualist dependent on the government - unless you're John Wayne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED RIVER")

WAYNE: (As Thomas Dunson) Everything a man could want - good water and grass, plenty of it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Who does this belong to?

WAYNE: (As Thomas Dunson) To me.

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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Correction May 2, 2014

In this story, we say the 1948 film Red River is set in East Texas. Actually, it's set in South Texas.

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