- - Friday, April 25, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The urban left is adamant: Cliven Bundy is a poster child for “stupid, reckless idiots goobers who can’t even do math.” I am not sure what math has to do with it, other than adding up those derelict grazing fees.

A million dollars in fees prompted the feds to mount a collection operation, complete with snipers, helicopters and police dogs.

The story, according to Chris Matthews and his kind, is this: All those law-abiding ranchers who pay their grazing fees are betrayed by this renegade scofflaw and his militia pals. There’s nothing to see here, in other words, but a nut. There are no smoldering issues; there is no injustice happening to that mostly invisible minority — rural Americans, who also happen to be mostly conservative.

I held similar views — until I lived for a bit on a working ranch. There, I sat in the saddle working cows for 12 hours — maybe it was just eight hours that felt like 12 — with my knees locked into what I imagined as permanent pain. I manned the deworming gun at the corral, even if the cowboy across from me ended up more dewormed than the cows.

I anticipated my own death at every turn — if not by accident, then by the design of the wholly irritated ranchers who were my hosts. My notions of how the West could be a better national park were marinated in cow manure, tortured by muscle fatigue, and finally gave way to the realities of the life and place in front of me.

Ranching woke me up to the incredible nonsense and arrogance directed at rural America by their urban, blinkered betters — environmentally minded liberals blind to their own colonial impulses. Ranching woke me up to the mind-numbing incompetence and truculence of big government.

Here in the East, when we want to save an endangered species, we actually have to work with private landowners, farmers, ranchers and foresters to come up with cooperative plans for resource-dependent communities. Witness the endangered Louisiana black bear in the Mississippi Delta, once reviled (and shot) by farmers for destroying their crops. A few years ago, a rice farmer in Louisiana called me with this triumphant news: “Sweet pea, a mom and her cub were seen swimming across the Mississippi today!”

There is no such jubilance in the West over endangered species. Despite the mandate from the National Environmental Policy Act to involve rural communities early and fairly in decisions that affect their welfare, that provision is routinely circumnavigated.

Similarly ignored are the good intentions of so many other environmental laws, not least among them the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, passed to prevent the Wilderness Act from becoming an eviction notice to public lands ranchers. It didn’t work.

As one rancher-conservationist wrote to me: “Just as the Bundy’s [52] neighboring ranchers learned, an [Endangered Species Act] species listing can be the death knell for local communities and economies.” Oh, yes, the feds bought the grazing rights of those 52 families — they made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only Cliven Bundy, a determined maverick or an unrepentant madman, stuck it out.

Mr. Bundy knew what came next. If the feds couldn’t buy him out, they would manage him out of business. He said: “Why should I pay for the privilege?”

There are 12 “public lands” states in the West. As in Nevada, the federal government controls as much as 80 percent of the land in these states and with it, they control the incomes and destinies of the rural people dependent on those lands.

When President Obama introduced his new secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, last year, he said: “She knows the link between conservation and good jobs.” Really? Perhaps he was referring to jobs for environmentalists and their attorneys.

If my many ranch friends had their druthers, I imagine they would prefer a poster child for federal oppression of Western rural communities who wasn’t entirely on the wrong side of the law.

There are many potential candidates. All are silenced by their fear of retaliation from federal agencies that administer the overlapping, confusing and debilitating land policies drawn up in Washington, federal agencies that occupy such an unsavory and undemocratic amount of space in rural lives.

As another rancher told me: “The level of intimidation we all feel all the time from our government is what matters here.” In the Bundy story, ranchers see a grim outline of their own. The fees are the least of it.

Joan Chevalier is a speechwriter in New York City.

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