How the West Wasn’t Won

Ammon Bundy and his armed band want the government to give back “stolen” land. They should be careful what they wish for.

Ammon Bundy, leader of an armed anti-government militia, leaves after making a statement at a news conference at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 5.

Photographer: Ob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine. Imagine that the 20-odd armed self-proclaimed patriots now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon were more media-savvy. Imagine that these disgruntled, 10-gallon-hatted desperadoes were able to top the blustery, convoluted riffs they’ve thus far brought to cable news and make a cogent case for economic injustice on the Western range. What if they could evoke history with eloquence and marshal piercing statistics as they rally for the release of two Oregon ranchers—Dwight and Steve Hammond, father and son—recently imprisoned for setting a fire that spread to public land? Could they make the case that if their demands were met, they’d actually improve the lives of hardworking farmers, loggers, and ranchers?

The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as the patriots are calling themselves, have a leader: hulking, bearded, 40-year-old Ammon Bundy. And he’s said that his posse won’t leave until the Hammonds are free and freedom reigns. No more penalties for pesky infractions like arson, Bundy insists: “The people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women.” In the Citizens’ founding document, the “Call to Action!” which Bundy posted to Facebook on Dec. 30, he added, “The federal government has adversely stolen the lands and resources from the people, destroyed thousands of jobs and the economy of an entire county.” How has it done this? As Bundy sees it, by taking possession of vast swaths of land.

The U.S. currently owns 47 percent of the real estate in the West, but the Feds didn’t always have such a lock. Back in the mid-19th century, the government was happy to give turf to farmers and ranchers for free. We’re talking bad land in big states like Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming: arid, treeless, vacant expanses of barren soil barely specked with vegetation. Per Manifest Destiny, if you wanted to graze cattle on its godforsaken reaches, well, the grass was all yours. During this allegedly golden era in American history, rancher Abraham Bundy (1859-1946), Ammon’s great-great-grandfather, came west from Illinois and then, with his five sons, laid claim to 4,000 acres of Arizona ranch land.

The settling of the West was the stuff of myth even then. The lone cowboy, later to become the star of John Ford movies, was already coming to life as an American icon. If there’s one thing that defines a cowboy, it’s a contempt for rules—and that extends to rulemakers. Richard Ballinger, who became secretary of the interior in 1909, proclaimed, “You chaps who are in favor of this conservation program are all wrong. In my opinion, the proper course to take with regard to [public rangeland] is to divide it up among the big corporations and the people who know how to make money out of it.”

Ranching regulation did not come along until 1934, when a congressional bill, first proposed by a conservative Colorado congressman named Edward Taylor, passed. Then, suddenly there was a federal Division of Grazing set up within the Department of the Interior, intent on herding the West’s ranchers and also on protecting the land from the worst effects of ranching—compacted soil, for instance, the decimation of forage, and the flourishing of weeds in a changing ecosystem. New ranchers were now required to apply for grazing land. They were also obliged to pay grazing fees—so much per cow, per month. Certain tracts of land were marked off-limits for the benefit of wildlife—a tack that did not go over well and still doesn’t.

Ranchers’ ire has remained steady for decades—but so, curiously, have the fees they pay to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that today manages 155 million acres of grazing land, an area almost as large as Texas. In 1983 a rancher’s monthly cost for grazing one cow and one calf was, per arcane BLM criteria, $1.40. Today it’s $1.69. A 2015 study by a Tucson-based advocacy group, the Center for Biological Diversity, found that if public-lands ranchers were leasing similar private land at prevailing market rates, they’d be paying nearly 15 times as much per cow. It appears that the U.S. loses money supporting ranchers: A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that in 2004 agencies had spent $144 million on grazing programs while only $21 million in grazing fees were collected.

Moreover, the federal government spends tens of millions each year suppressing fires and killing off cow-hostile weeds like cheatgrass. Public-lands ranchers enjoy these services gratis, but perhaps they don’t appreciate them. Bundy and his Citizens are asking the U.S. government to surrender all federal lands to state and local authorities, and seem unfazed by the prospect that, if such a transfer happened, they’d start paying out of pocket for fire and weed management.

As 2016 begins, 27,000 American livestock producers hold federal grazing permits. They constitute roughly 3 percent of all cattlemen nationwide and are standard bearers for a fading occupation. The average age of a federal lands grazing permittee is now about 60. “People my age don’t want to get into it,” says Jess Peterson, who’s 34 and the executive vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “Just to get started these days you need at least half a million worth of machinery. And rangeland is so expensive. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to buy, you were competing against, you know, Joe who just finished high school. Now owning a ranch is fashionable, and you’re competing against some guy from Wall Street.”

Ammon Bundy seems to get this: He hasn’t followed his forebears into ranching. Instead, he’s the impresario behind a Phoenix company, Valet Fleet Service, which repairs and maintains semi-trucks.

Even if ranching were a growth industry, it wouldn’t necessarily create more jobs. Running cattle in the American West has never been labor-intensive. Consider that in some particularly dry locales, a single calf-and-cow duo needs to forage through several hundred acres a month just to survive—and they can nibble away with very little human supervision. Ranching is such a basic enterprise that in 2002 University of Montana economist Thomas Power released a controversial study noting that in the 11 Western states where public-lands grazing occurs, it generates only $1 of every $2,500 of income earned. In recent years, says Power, now an independent economic consultant, ranching’s role in the West’s economy “has continued to shrink. Increasingly,” he says, “even rural farm families can’t live off farming. They get the vast majority of their income from other jobs.”

If American ranchers have a legit financial gripe, it’s not grazing fees or federal regulations so much as prices—beef prices have been falling since late last summer. Other problems: rising feed prices, recent droughts in California and Texas (no doubt partly spurred by climate change), and imported meat. Even so, the cattle industry has enjoyed record profits, partly because of overseas demand, over the last two years; beef imports constitute only about 4 percent of what Americans see on supermarket shelves.

Harney County, the place that Bundy deems “destroyed,” is a Massachusetts-sized hinterland where, until they were jailed, the fire-setting Hammonds lived and ran cattle a few miles from the wildlife refuge. Slightly more than 7,000 people reside there, as opposed to 100,000 cows. Roughly 400 ranches graze cattle on public lands that account for 72 percent of the county’s acreage. The animals are, it seems, always close at hand, so that, driving, you wait for them to cross roads; you see almost nothing else on the desolate moonscape. According to Randy Fulton, the director of economic development for the county, ranching brought in $59 million in 2012—an influx facilitated by the BLM and its subsidization of grazing.

Birding is also a big source of income for the county, delivering roughly $15 million a year, but now, with the occupation on, Fulton worries that revenue related to the sanctuary might dip. “Even if this conflict is settled,” he says, “people might say, ‘That place is dangerous. We’re not going there.’ And if it turns into a Waco where there’s federal law enforcement and shooting, oh my, those occupiers will say, ‘Let’s take the buildings out. Let’s set fire to them.’ They could do considerable damage, and that won’t help us at all.”

Freelance writer Donahue, a 25-year resident of Oregon, now lives in New Hampshire.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.