Let Them Eat Tortoise

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Desert tortoise


The standoff in Nevada between rancher Cliven Bundy and the United States government is being represented by some portions of the mainstream press as being about a stubborn rancher’s refusal to pay grazing fees to the federal government on “federal land.”

Even on conservative Fox News that was the stated cause of the current standoff, Fox News being evidently as unaware as the more liberal press that this has absolutely nothing to do with “federal land.” For one thing, there is no such thing as “federal land.” Article I, Section Eight of the United States Constitution says: “[The Congress shall have the power to] Exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings…” That’s it. The federal government is allowed to own the District of Columbia and the land necessary for military use, and nothing else. All the rest that the feds and others like to call “federal land” is actually your land. My land. Our land. The feds may administer it, but they most emphatically do not own it.

Other more liberal news organizations have attempted to make it seem as if this is about environmental issues, specifically a desert tortoise, trying to portray the tortoise and cattle as adversaries, never mind that tortoise and cattle have co-existed on desert land ever since cattle were first introduced to North America. Besides, Nevada’s Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, has apparently already moved the boundaries of the protected desert tortoise land to allow some of that land to be developed by one of his cronies, so it can’t be about the tortoise.

More recent news reports claim Senator Reid and his son, Rory Reid (already embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal), want the land for a Chinese energy firm represented by Reid, Jr. that plans to put up solar panels, and that that is why the Senator made his former Senior Policy Advisor in charge of public land issues, Neil Kornze, the head of the Bureau of Land Management. And that may very well be part of the reason why Mr. Bundy is being driven off his land.

But if you watch the news, you will see aerial shots of Mr. Bundy’s ranchland with cattle grazing near a stream, and the old Watergate adage of “follow the money” is applicable here, because in the American West, “follow the money” and “follow the water” are the same thing. Water is gold in the American West, and whoever owns the water rights is—or will be once the water is diverted from cattle to golf courses in Las Vegas and Los Angeles—very, very rich. And taking ranchers’ land away from them on thin or non-existent pretexts to get their water is nothing new.

For those of you unfamiliar with land ownership and water rights in the American West, there is a concept here called the “split estate” which makes land ownership very interesting. If you buy a big tract of land, you get just that, a bunch of soil, but the water rights and grazing rights are separate properties that may be purchased or sold by themselves, as are the mining rights, timber rights, oil and gas rights, wildlife rights, easement rights, development rights, trespass rights, and possibly other rights that I’m not aware of. If you take the concept of the “split estate” to its illogical extreme, it is theoretically possible for you to own a piece of land in the West with which you can’t do a single damn thing except pay taxes and boast.

Of course, if you own the land and the water rights near Las Vegas, you can make a fortune putting up houses, solar panels, and selling water to drought-stricken cities. It’s a very lucrative win-win for somebody.

Update: As of this morning, the Federal Aviation Administration has declared a “no-fly zone” over the area around the Bundy ranch, effectively preventing news helicopters from obtaining footage. One wonders what they’re afraid the American public might see. Other than the water.

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