Montana Viewpoint: Some questions for the Bundys

Bundy

Gage Skidmore

Cliven Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona, 2014.

I have been giving some thought to the beliefs of some — such as the Bundy clan of the aptly named town of Bunkerville, Nevada— that the federal government cannot own property and therefore whatever Bureau of Land Management land the Bundys are using as grazing land actually belongs to the county, in this case, Clark County Nevada.

Jim

Jim Elliott

If I follow the logic, because the BLM, as a branch of the federal government, cannot manage land the government cannot own, the Bundys need no BLM permit or permission to use the lands hypothetically administered by the BLM for their own personal use.

OK. If, then, Clark County “owns” the land, do the Bundys need to ask permission from the county to use the land for private purposes? I guess whether or not they need permission is moot because they are using the land anyway, but first I would think that Clark County would have to have some sort of title to the land, which they do not.

So if, as the Bundys claim, they do not need permission from the federal government, and cannot get permission from the county because the county has no authority to give permission to use something they do not lay claim to, how does all this work out?

I am not sure by what arrangement — other than “we were here first” — the Bundys have arrogated the use of that land for themselves, but it stands to reason that there are other ranchers who then have just as much right to use that land as the Bundys. Have any one of them tried?

If not, why not? Several potential reasons come to mind: one, they accept that, unlike the Bundys, the BLM land is owned by the federal government and that they respect that; two, they believe the Bundys are right, but do not want to run their cattle on that land; or, three, they don’t want to mess with the Bundys. My money’s on number three.

So, it comes down to this: the Bundys can use the land for free because they say they can. What if a neighbor says they can’t hog it all for themselves and that they want a share of the booty? What if the Bundys say, “no way.” Then what happens? A range war between neighbors? Do they bring in someone like the legendary Tom Horn to use murder and mayhem to scare off the interlopers, as happened in the war between the ranchers and the sheepmen in the 1880s?

It may seem I am being cute here, but it would seem to me that some apparatus would have to be set up to deal with the conflict that will arise, and that it would have to be something that the neighbors could all agree upon. Of course, we already have that apparatus, which is called “the law,” but the Bundys don’t believe that the law is constitutional.

So my simple question is, how does this work? Part of the argument, as I understand it, is that there is a “natural law” that supercedes all manmade law, and that part of that natural law says that the first people to put a piece of land to beneficial use get to use it forever. That is sort of like water law in the West, which says first in time, first in right.

Well and good, except there has to be a system to enforce water law. I mean, people actually have to file papers and such to have legal claim. But then, in Montana at least, the water belongs to the state, so it’s not a federal issue because states have supremacy over the United States government. By that logic, the Nevada Constitution is supreme over the U.S. Constitution. Fair enough, but I leave you with Article I, section 2 of the Constitution of the state of Nevada:

“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it. But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States. The Constitution of the United States confers full power on the Federal Government to maintain and Perpetuate its existence, and whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.”

You figure it out.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly newspapers across Montana and online at Last Best News and Missoula Current.

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