A Busy Rancher Speaks

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Reader C. Andrew has alerted me to a good piece, by rancher Keith Nantz, regarding the general situation ranchers face in terms of intrusive government, and that has provoked the latest standoff in Oregon. Like the author, I would describe myself as sympathetic with the position of the occupiers, but not with their tactics.

Just one of the things Nantz does very well is to summarize the intrusiveness and ineptitude of the federal government's management of much of the government-held land currently used for grazing:

Money isn't the only challenge. Raising cattle requires a lot of land, much more than most ranchers can afford to own outright. I lease about a third of the space I use from private owners. But most ranchers aren't so lucky. The federal government controls a huge amount of land in the west (more than 50 percent in some states, like Oregon), and many ranchers must lease that space to create a sustainable operation.

Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules.
For example, a federal government agency might decide that it wants to limit the number of days a rancher can graze their cattle to protect a certain endangered plant or animal species, or they might unilaterally decide that ranchers can't use as much water as they need because of a fight over water rights. Or they might take over land that once belonged to the state or private individuals, imposing an entirely new set of restrictions. [bold added, link in original omitted]
Although Nantz is silent on the question of whether the government ought to hold all this land or set these rules, he reminds me very much of a favorite quote of mine regarding the ineptitude of central planning with the following passage, especially when considered against the backdrop of the difficulties and long hours of his chosen occupation:
I saw this play out firsthand when the federal government considered listing the sage grouse, a chicken-like bird, as endangered. That regulation would have shrunk the amount of land where ranchers could graze cattle, putting many out of business and decimating the industry. To avoid this, ranchers like myself and local officials spent months meeting with federal officials looking for compromise. We ultimately found middle ground. But we already have an enormous workload in our daily lives. The pressure of having to drop everything to lobby against a rule (which happens more often than you'd think) is a tremendous burden.

Most of the time, those regulations are written by people with no agriculture experience, and little understanding of what it takes to produce our nation's food. The agencies that control these lands can add burdensome regulations at any time. Often, they will begin aggressively enforcing them before ranchers have a chance to adjust. [links omitted]
Again, Nantz is silent on whether the government has any business making all these rules, but it is clear that this situation threatens the livelihoods of many, as well as our food supply. (Does anyone doubt the same kind of thing is happening nationwide, and across industries?)

The only things I would add to Nantz's piece -- righteous indignation and a recommendation for a better tactic than armed confrontation with the government -- I addressed during Cliven Bundy's standoff a couple of years ago:
I think that the government's ownership of all this land is improper and that the [Bureau of Land Management] ought to be abolished, but the solution to that problem is not an anarchic revolt. There are ways to change the law, and they involve persuading others that the change ought to be made. I also agree wholeheartedly with the local, interviewed for the news article, that, "You just can't let this go by, or everybody is going to be like, 'If Bundy can break the law, why can't I?'" [link omitted]
Improper government increasingly brushes with making life impossible, but until significant numbers of people see that this is morally wrong, the situation will not change. (At best, they'll seek to do the impossible with "better people," for example.) The government's job is to protect us from the predations of criminals and foreign invaders, and to provide an objective means of settling honest disputes. Part of that job is to get out of the way, which, is made difficult or impossible by, say, pretending to be a land owner or dictating how people are to run their own businesses (beyond prohibiting harm to others). Government land management is poor, but this is to be expected from the fact that such a mission is contrary to its proper purpose.

-- CAV

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