Western Wrangle

I was surprised to find that Nye County, Nevada, was "Twelve hundred miles to the west" of Denver ("Storm Over the Rockies," June ). This would place it several hundred miles to the west of San Francisco—in the Pacific Ocean. Makes me wonder. Was this piece written before the elder Karl died, or was it channeled through this upstart namesake? I understand that distances aren't quite as important to those who have traveled into the great beyond. So which is it?

Lawrence M. Ludlow
San Diego, CA

In Karl Hess Jr.'s dissertation, he is obviously attempting to foment violence and discontent because his "studies" are contradictory and misleading. However, they do prove the point that the West is ethically correct in opposing federal management.

From his own research, Mr. Hess says that the government is wasting large amounts of taxpayer money by subsidizing cattlemen and range maintenance. In the same breath, Mr. Hess says that the cattlemen are resisting federal intervention. Who is the bigger fool here: Mr. Hess for believing the federal government is subsidizing the cattlemen, or the cattlemen for wanting to throw the feds out and lose all of that free subsidy money?

You can't have it both ways, Mr. Hess. If we eliminate the feds, then, according to your research, the taxpayers will save in excess of $200 million a year and the cattlemen will suffer a loss. If you support continued federal management then you obviously support higher taxes for the general public.

Most of those tax dollars are spent on administering an ever-expanding bureaucracy and not on the citizens. If you are really affiliated with the Cato Institute, you should know this. So what's your real reason for creating this false premise and possibly instigating unnecessary violence, where peaceful solutions are available?

Jack Vogt, Chairman
William Wright, Ben Colvin,
Larry Dowers, Ken Polman,
Tim Brown, Durk Pearson
Esmeralda County Public Lands Advisory Commission
Esmeralda County, NV

Karl Hess cites my book, Storm Over Rangelands, as having considerable influence in the current Western land debate and the revived "sagebrush rebellion."

I believe Mr. Hess misses the main point underlying the controversy. The standard answer to concerns about our soaring national deficit used to be: "The national deficit is collateralized by our national assets." These national assets, it was explained, consisted primarily of vast acreages of "public" lands in the Western states and Alaska. These lands contained far more wealth in mineral, grazing, and timber resources than the total of our deficit. We were assured by those "Keynesian" economists that the people of the United States need not fear our national debts or deficits.

The Western federal rangelands, often referred to erroneously as "public" lands, grew out of economic necessity dictated by a huge Civil War debt. Westward expansion before the Civil War had followed the Jeffersonian concept of absolute privatization. Absolute title was conveyed from the government to individuals through the patent.

Jeffersonians correctly argued that a free society depended on the wealth of the nation being owned by the people as individuals and private associations of people. All wealth originates in the land.

The $2.8 billion Civil War debt owed primarily to European bankers and bondholders turned U.S. policy from land privatization to one of land retention. Instead of conveying all Western lands to the individuals who had settled on them, the national government withheld its underlying ownership and used that interest to collateralize our national debt.

The original acts of nationalization were intended to extinguish the private rights that settlers had acquired according to state law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1907 (Kansas v. Colorado) that the creation of national forests did not extinguish state sovereignty or the property created under state law, an opinion which has consistently been upheld by the high court since.

The real controversy underlying the current Western land debate is only a continuation of this century-plus-old conflict. If private individuals own property right interests in these unpatented federal lands, it raises the questions: Has Congress mortgaged something they didn't own? As long as those questions remain unsettled, our international creditors have just cause for concern. A 1984 report from the Department of Interior to the House Appropriations Committee elucidated this aspect of the problem: "The water right is the property of the permittee (rancher), over which the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] (federal government) exercises no more control than the sale of a box of soap in the marketplace" (parentheses mine).

The constant attack on Western ranchers, loggers, and miners is an attempt to extinguish private property rights without compensation. If all the private split-estate rights owned by resource producers in the West could be sewn back into one whole cloth of government ownership, the collateral value of these nationalized lands would be greatly enhanced. Where direct attempts to extinguish these property rights without compensation have been restrained by the courts, extinction through strangling regulations has succeeded to a large degree. Many Westerners have abandoned their property rights in federal land rather than bear the burden and expense of protracted court battles.

Attacking the citizens of the sparsely populated West makes sense politically. Recent attempts by government to gain control of property rights on the patented lands of the Eastern two-thirds of the country have raised many red flags. Politicians are acutely aware that the current property rights movement in the United States is largely a response to the taking of private property in the urban East through the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the high-handed tactics of the Environmental Protection Agency and Corps of Engineers.

The taking of private lands in heavy population centers gains comparatively little at great political risk. On the other hand, there are only 28,000 ranchers in the West with grazing rights on federal lands. There is a comparable number of miners and loggers whose property rights are being taken by the regulatory policy of federal agencies and the environmental groups allied with them. At worst, the political risk in attacking the West involves throwing a quarter-million Westerners to the wolves. The gain in wealth for the central government with those rights extinguished is incalculable.

I agree with Mr. Hess that the current Sagebrush Rebellion misses the point. But not for the same reason Mr. Hess cites. The sagebrush rebels, like Mr. Hess, fail to understand that the Western land problem is far more a product of congressional budget committees and Federal Reserve policy than a conflict among Westerners.

Wayne Hage
Tonopah, NV

I agree with Karl Hess that privatization is the West's best long-term bet; however, ranchers are far from the only beneficiaries of public-lands largess. Of 720 million acres of public lands, over 150 million acres are set aside for environmentalists and recreationalists as National Park Services lands, wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, or National Recreation Areas. The federal government subsidizes public-land recreation industries to the tune of $1.6 billion per year, recouping less than 10 percent in user fees.

Federal agencies also want to maintain the existing system. The departments of Defense and Energy control 22 million acres of public land and intend to keep every acre. So, if ranching's "dead hand" is removed, will recreationalists be willing to see user fees quintuple? Will the Sierra Club give up having 10,000 square miles made wilderness at the stroke of a pen? Will DOD sacrifice its bombing ranges, and DOE cease cramming Yucca Mountain down Nevada's throat? If privatization means that ranchers are no longer privileged beings, then the other parties in the dispute must also accept parity.

Mark A. Bradley
Geologist, Placer Dome U.S. Inc.
Reno, NV

Karl Hess Jr. is wrong about cattle ranchers getting big government subsidies. Grazing rights are no more subsidies than was your great grandfather's homestead purchased from the government.

Mr. Hess paints an entirely false picture of the county government movement and the people involved. It is simply an attempt to use existing federal laws to protect citizens from the government and an effort to get government control out of D.C. and back to local (county) government where it belongs. Western landowners carry guns to protect themselves and their livestock from predators—seldom are these the bureaucratic variety.

Mr. Hess is wrong about dams being the primary cause of the demise of salmon. Try: Indian fishing, overfishing in the ocean by both domestic and foreign interests—much of it in violation of laws and treaties, and an incredible explosion of seal and sea lion populations due to the Marine Mammals Act.

If a few Western ranchers were involved in stopping the sale of Bureau of Land Management land, they were a misguided minority. The BLM should dispose of all of its land, then go out of business, as was originally intended.

J. Marvin Chastain
Port Angeles, WA

As someone born and raised in Wyoming too damned many years ago, I must admire Mr. Hess for his slick presentation. In 1895, he could have written the article in one sentence simply by describing us as "filthy, vicious, heathen savages." His elaborate craftsmanship serves the same purpose today—cover for a massive land and water grab.

Few of the urbanites Mr. Hess mentions are Westerners. Most are California refugees and escapees from the Northeast who arrived in such numbers and so quickly that they turned our small Rocky Mountain cities into the same gridlocked, smoggy, unlivable mess they had just left.

Mr. Hess won't acknowledge the bare bones and soul of this fight. Cowboys or not, Westerners dearly love their land empty. Empty as in hiking and fishing mountain streams for two weeks without seeing another person. Empty of RVs, of dirt bikers and federal busybodies, of New Agers and lawyers. Empty of environmentalists literally studying nature to death, and empty of the Prozac nation.

We are doomed, of course, just as were the Indians before us. You will get your land by hook or crook (mostly crook). Then you can build hundreds of ranchette communities complete with septic tanks, a golf course, malls, and landing strip. You will utterly destroy that which you came seeking. Look at Jackson Hole, Aspen, Woodland Park, Taos, West Yellowstone, and Santa Fe.

M.J. Reading
Grants, NM

Karl Hess Jr. notes that the West is now urbanized and the cities out-populate the rural areas. Yet he considers the water provided by federal dams to be subsidies only for the ranchers. Actually the dams provide the water, power, and recreation facilities that have allowed these cities to grow. Any water from federal dams used for grazing must be minimal.

Mr. Hess believes the BLM is concerned only with grazing issues and charges the entire burden of this cost to be a subsidy to ranchers. In fact, the BLM administers many different aspects of public lands including wildlife, the Endangered Species Act, access roads, wilderness areas, mineral leasing, mineral purchase, mining law, fire control, timber sales, land sales and exchange, and many other activities including recreation.

Mr. Hess makes no mention of the high-handed and overbearing activities of the BLM, acting on order from the Beltway 3,000 miles away. The blatant acts of closing off access to private lands (the problem in Nye County), the aggressive taking without compensation involved in the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act, the moratorium on patenting land where all proofs have been completed, the attempt to preempt vested water rights, and the closing of roads crossing public lands (RS2477 roads) are a few of the items that come to mind.

Mr. Hess's observation that the economics of the "urban West" does not share common values with the rural West is true. But these urbanites are new migrants from cities and rarely step outside the metropolitan areas. They reflect the views of the areas from which they come, and do not know the issues involved.

Richard V. Wyman, Ph.D., P.E.
Boulder City, NV

Karl Hess Jr. responds: It never fails to amaze me the lengths that people will go to justify state power and, in particular, state power that benefits them. Many stockmen are proud men and women of unshakable integrity whose ethic is one of self-help and self-rule. To them I say hurrah and more power to you—all power over your own lives, in fact. Unfortunately, not all ranchers are so noble.

The posse from Esmeralda accuses me of inconsistency and suggests that I have a dark and sinister agenda. They say there is a contradiction in my logic—how could ranchers be taking subsidies and resisting the federal government at the same time? Easy. The West has been doing it for years. The line is this: Send the check but get out of my way. Maybe the Esmeralda desperadoes are the biggest fools of all to think that Nevada ranchers can be the biggest recipients of emergency feed relief in the West and still escape the long arm of Uncle Sam.

Wayne Hage's argument is a bit more sophisticated. I am pleased that he agrees on the misdirection of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and I wholeheartedly concur in his displeasure with Congress. But a conspiracy flowing from bankers, international creditors, and the Federal Reserve? Wayne, one doesn't need a conspiracy theory to debunk government. One just needs common sense. The truth is that the West's undoing has nothing to do with collateralized debt. Its downfall is that it sold its soul for a handful of greenbacks and a promise of federal protection. The fact is that the American taxpayer has bankrolled the grazing rights you claim as private property over and over again through billions of dollars of range improvement investments. Taxpayers, not ranchers, are the real victims of government.

Now for a quick breath of fresh air. Yes, Mr. Bradley, you are right. Injustice is the middle name of the public-land West. I couldn't be in further agreement. I recently wrote and will write a second book soon on the National Park Service—and the fact that it is one of the cherry subsidies of the upper-middle class in America. Also, I never hold back on my green friends. Subsidies are subsidies, and even the very best of causes is no excuse for government. What gets me mad is that ranchers should know this.

Back to the battle. Marvin Chastain suggests that I am painting a false picture of the county government movement and the people involved with it. Although smaller is better in my book, there is no evidence that county government is superior to federal government. The best one can say is that it is easier to change—and easier to escape from. My gripe with the Western county movement is that its entire agenda is about making government more important in people's lives. Instead of looking to free markets and free minds for social order and political liberty, it hides under the skirt of the miniaturized leviathan of county managers and county commissioners.

Mr. Reading of my home state and Mr. Wyman of Nevada raise an interesting question: Who are the true Westerners? They cavalierly dismiss the urbanites and refugees from California and the East, though each and every one of those refugees paid fair market value for the land and homes they own. Messrs. Reading and Wyman also imply that environmentalists who pay hard cash for ranches and then use them for preservation are non-Westerners—invaders that rank with desert millipedes and scorpions. Well, what does this say about real Westerners among whom Messrs. Reading and Wyman count themselves? Real Westerners, of course, took their land by force from Native Americans, they taxed the rest of the nation for dams and highways, and then they fattened themselves on a cornucopia of federal cost-subsidies. Lest we forget, most real Westerners also came out West as refugees from the East—and some as refugees from the gold fields in California. I guess a real Westerner is someone who takes what he or she damn well pleases, and leaves the bill for the rest of us to pay. Yes, Mr. Reading and Mr. Wyman, the West you speak of is indeed doomed, but not for the reasons that destroyed the American Indian. Native Americans and their culture died proudly on the battlefield fighting federal intrusion; real Westerners, I fear, will simply perish in their mad stampede to see which one of them can get the most from the Great White Father in Washington.

This brings me to my final comment. Mr. Ludlow is absolutely correct. Twelve hundred miles puts Nye County smack in the ocean. I guess it was just wishful thinking—or maybe it was doing Nye County a favor. That far out in the Pacific, the county and its ranching rebels might be able to both establish their sovereignty and still get their entitlement checks—though this time through the U.S. State Department. And yes, distances I suppose are not so important to those in the great beyond. But as my father died and I looked out his hospital window to the dot that was Jefferson's Monticello on the hill above I could not help but think of the great distance that lay between Charlottesville and the West and the even greater distance that now separated the sage's dreams and sagebrush nightmare of a federalized West. I suppose I got confused by the latter.