The media have been fascinated by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his standoff against the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management over the last month or so.
The feds argue Bundy has been a bad tenant and has not paid his grazing fees. Bundy, for his part, disputes the federal government’s claim on the plot of land in northeastern Clark County, Nev., where he has claimed ancestral grazing rights going back to the late-1800s.
Whatever the motivations may be, it’s obvious the federal government is set on evicting Bundy from the land. They have challenged his claims in court and even attempted to claim that land he has been grazing on in the name of protecting the desert tortoise. Ownership of the land isn’t in question. After the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made it quite clear the United States government would be the new owners of the land for a sum of $15 million.
Then part of the agreement for Nevada’s statehood on Oct. 31, 1864, was that Nevada would agree to let the federal government own “unappropriated land” within the state, thus bolstering its claim to the areas surrounding the Bunkerville.
But that does beg the question: Why does the United States government own so much land?
According to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, the federal government owns 28 percent of all the land in the United States. Much of that includes more than half of Alaska and a handful of western states, including Nevada, of which federal government owns 81 percent.
This doesn’t appear to be a problem for Alabama. Of the state’s 32 million acres, the federal government owns only a bit more than 871,000 acres, or 2.7 percent of the state.
The bulk of that land includes Alabama’s four national forests — Bankhead, Conecuh, Talladega and Tuskegee; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority waterways; and the two sizable military installations — Fort Rucker and Redstone Arsenal.
Over the past few decades, there has been a movement to significantly expand the federal government’s ownership of Alabama, which could come in the form of the Department of Interior deeming the 260,000 acres of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta as a national park.
That became a campaign issue in last year’s runoff contest between now-Rep. Bradley Byrne and challenger Dean Young for the 1st Congressional District’s Republican nomination. At the time, Lagniappe’s Gabe Tynes chronicled the pros and cons of the National Park Service taking control of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
Those on the affirmative side, Tynes highlighted the federal government’s ability to protect the fragile lands and suggested it could have a potential positive economic impact for the region. Those against such a venture opposed it on the grounds it could restrict economic development locally and it also could mean additional restrictions on hunting and fishing on the land.
Opponents have an ally in Byrne. One of his very first acts as a member of Congress was to lay down a marker for his opposition to any federal intrusions into the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
“The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is a historic area that generations of sportsmen in South Alabama, including my own family, have enjoyed for hundreds of years,” Byrne wrote in a letter to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., protesting consideration of a National Park. “The federal government has no need to come into the backyards of South Alabamians who have been good stewards of this area, restricting access to the very land they have so diligently cared for. Today I am taking a stand to voice the concerns of South Alabamians who are wary of the federal government’s intrusion onto this area. I will continue fighting to preserve access to this area for the avid sportsmen who enjoy this area to this day.”
Barring an actual act of Congress, none of this may matter if the federal government decided it wanted to make the delta a National Park if it was determined that was for the public good.
Eminent domain has been an instrumental tool for the National Park Service. Some of the better known national parks in the country are products of federal land grabs. The Shenandoah, Mammoth Cave and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks were products of New Deal era land grabs, which are even touted on the Department of Justice’s website.
If you’re an opponent to the feds coming in, being a good steward of the delta and minimizing pollution is also important. The federal government could determine the local and state governments aren’t doing a good job with the environmental aspects of the delta and therefore could seem justified in declaring the delta a national park by fiat.
On this issue, Cliven Bundy’s battle with the feds matters to Alabamians. Although the actual circumstances are very different, if one side or the other prevails, it could set the tone on public opinion on federal ownership and management of land.
The current stalemate between Bundy and the feds won’t last in the long-term. And depending on how the Obama administration handles this, it could set public opinion one way or another on the federal government and land. And that hits close to home.
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