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Federal Socialism in the West


Whatever one might think about the takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a group of Western ranchers, the controversy does raise an important question: Why does a government of a nation that was founded on principles of private property and that purportedly opposes socialism own so much land in the Western United States?

A good rendition of the facts in the controversy appeared yesterday in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Western Land Revolt.” The Journal states:

Activists on Saturday broke into an unoccupied building on the 187,000-acre federal refuge in eastern Oregon to protest the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers. The group’s spokesman is Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevadan who in 2014 came to national attention over his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. The younger Bundy is a political grandstander, and many in Oregon oppose his illegal siege.

The drama is bringing attention to legitimate grievances, especially the appalling federal treatment of the Hammond family. The Hammonds’ problems trace to 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside 89,000 acres around Malheur Lake as a bird refuge. The government has since been on a voracious land-and-water grab, coercing the area’s once-thriving ranchers to sell.

The feds have revoked dozens of grazing permits and raised the price of the few it issues. It has mismanaged the area’s water, allowing ranchlands to flood. It has harassed landowners with regulatory actions that raise the cost of ranching, then has bought out private landowners to more than double the refuge’s size.

The Hammonds are one of the last private owners in the Harney Basin, and they have endured federal harassment over their water rights, the revocation of their grazing permits, restricted access to their property, and prosecutorial abuse.

In 2001, the Hammonds initiated a controlled fire on their land that inadvertently spread to land owned by the federal government. Then in 2006, they did the same thing, with the same result.

Ten years after the initial fire was set and five years after the second fire was set, the feds indicted the Hammonds under the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.” They were both convicted and the law required a mandatory sentence of five years in jail. Holding that such a sentence would “shock the conscience,” the trial judge ignored the law and sentenced the father to three months and son to one year. The feds appealed and the sentences were reversed. Both men have now reported to a federal penitentiary to serve out their full 5-year terms.

The protesters have taken over the federal property to protest the Hammonds’ punishment and, in a larger sense, the government’s misbehavior in the management of its lands.

According to the Journal, “Many in rural Oregon view this as a government vendetta.” Owning only half of Oregon just isn’t enough for the feds. They want more. Since the Hammonds have refused to sell, they’re having to spend the next five years of their lives in a federal jail.

How much land does the U.S. government own in the Western part of the United States? According to the Washington Post, the federal government owns 52 percent of the land in Western states. Take a look at this website, which provides a map that gives you a good picture of the situation. The part in red is the federally owned land.

Here are the percentages of land owned by the federal government in various Western states, as taken from this website:

Arizona: 48.7 percent
California: 45.3 percent
Colorado: 46.6 percent
Idaho: 50.7 percent
Montana: 29.9 percent
New Mexico: 42.8 percent
Nevada: 84.5 percent
Oregon: 53.1 percent
Utah: 57.4 percent
Washington:30.3 percent
Wyoming: 42.3 percent

Okay, granted, it’s not Cuba or North Korea, where the percentage of ownership is close to 100 percent, but still it’s extremely high. And Nevada, where the feds own a whopping 84.5 percent, certainly approaches the percentage of government ownership in Cuba and North Korea.

Civil disobedience can be a dangerous and dicey proposition when it comes to the federal government, which in the past has shown no reluctance to shoot, gas, incinerate, and assassinate American citizens. But on the plus side, civil disobedience can oftentimes focus public attention on government wrongdoing.

I say: Pardon the Hammonds and divest the federal government of ownership of all Western lands. If America is going to pride itself on being a nation based on private property and opposed to socialism, wouldn’t it be a good idea to practice what we preach?


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.