William F. Jasper
The New American
May 4, 2014

fedswestThe Nevada cattle rancher in the white cowboy hat and his supporters had massed in defiance of federal policies and agencies that threatened to drive them into extinction. To the cheers of locals, the rancher climbed aboard a Caterpillar bulldozer and plowed open a county road that had been closed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Are we talking about Cliven Bundy in 2014? No, the white-hat rancher to whom we are referring was Richard “Dick” Carver, a longtime county commissioner in Nevada’s sprawling and sparsely populated Nye County, and the date was July 4, 1994 — Independence Day, 20 years ago.

Carver’s act of defiance earned him a cover on Time magazine, which showed Carver and some of his supporters, with a super-imposed headline “Don’t Tread on Me,” followed by the subtitle, “An inside look at the West’s growing rebellion.”

While the federal government claims 84.5 percent of Nevada — the highest of any state — in Nye County the federal footprint covers over 93 percent, and federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., dominate virtually every aspect of Nye County inhabitants’ lives. Nye County, the nation’s third largest county, was also home to the late Wayne Hage, the feisty rancher/scholar who, for decades, courageously fought the federal government in court — and won landmark decisions for property rights. Hage was also author of the 1989 book Storm Over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands, a ground-breaking work on the history of the Western states, particularly as it relates to politics, governance, land use, and property rights. It is not surprising then that Nye County became the face of what is known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion II,” an effort by citizens in Western states to wrest control away from oppressive federal bureaucrats. The efforts by Carver, Hage, and others in the late 1980s-1990s were a continuation and resurgence of earlier efforts in the 1970s-1980s, often referred to as Sagebrush Rebellion I. Carver challenged the federal road closures in court.

In 1866, Congress passed the Mining Act (Revised Statute 2477) providing the right of way for construction of roads over federal “public lands.” For a century this gave protection to county roads, many of which are literally lifelines for small towns and rural communities. But following passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USFS began restricting and closing roads, even those that had been grandfathered in for protected legal status owing to their legacy under the 1866 Mining Act.

But in 1996, U.S. District Judge Lloyd D. George decided against Commissioner Carver and Nye County, ruling that the federal government “owns and has the power and authority to manage and administer the unappropriated public lands and National Forest System lands within Nye County, Nev.” Dick Carver died in 2003. Wayne Hage died in 2006. But Judge Lloyd George is still on the bench as a senior judge, and it was he who signed the permanent injunction against Cliven Bundy that initiated the recent standoff with the BLM. And, of course, the BLM, USFS, National Park Service (NPS), and the other federal agencies that dominate the Western public lands are still alive and kicking — more than ever. In fact, even though these agencies already “own” vast swaths of territory covering hundreds of millions of acres, virtually all of them have been on huge acquisition drives to acquire still more land. The map below graphically portrays the enormous fedgov footprint in the Western states.

Click to enlarge
Unequal footing: The federal government holds vast expanses of “public lands” in the Western states, compared to almost none or very little states to the east.
Even a quick glance easily reveals there is a striking difference between the federal government’s claim to physical real estate in the states of the East and the Midwest versus those of the West. In Maine, for instance, federal agencies occupy only 1.1 percent of the state’s land area; in New York it’s a mere 0.8 percent. The federal government claims only 1.8 percent of Indiana, 1.6 percent of Alabama, and 1.7 percent of Ohio.

But in the Western states, the federal footprint covers from nearly one-third to over four-fifths of the area of the states. Consider and contrast the rest of the country with the federal government’s ownership in the Western states:

Nevada: 84.5 percent

Alaska: 69.1 percent

Utah: 57.4 percent

Oregon: 53.1 percent

Idaho: 50.2 percent

Arizona: 48.1 percent

California: 45.3 percent

Wyoming: 42.4 percent

New Mexico: 41.8 percent

Colorado: 36.6 percent

Washington: 30.3 percent

Montana: 29.9 percent

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