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Experts weigh in: Bundy ranch standoff

The standoff at a Nevada ranch between federal officials, a cattle rancher and his supporters draws divergent reactions

After the federal government began seizing Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees, hundreds of protesters swarmed to Bundy's side to prevent it from proceeding. For the time being, the federal government has stood down. But in the court of public opinion, the fight rages on. 

We asked two experts from opposing sides for the Inside Story.

Ken Ivory

Ken Ivory was elected to the Utah House of Representatives as a Republican in November 2010. However, he campaigned as a candidate of the “Dad Party.” He and his wife, Becky, a middle school teacher, are the parents of four children. Ivory took time from his business, mediation, and estate-planning law practice to run for state office in order to “secure the blessings of liberty” to his posterity.

Inside Story: We just witnessed the standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and the Bundy supporters, with the BLM retreating. Regardless of what we all witnessed, do you believe Bundy still has an uphill legal battle against the United States government?

Ken Ivory: He’s in an unfortunate situation. If you’re building a house and you have a house that’s ready to crumble and people start saying it's the electrician, plumber, and then you find the house has a horrible foundation. The foundation is the fact that the federal government didn’t honor the same statehood with Nevada as Colorado — on all sorts of issues, like Bundy and other ranchers and miners. It’s really a challenging question to see who’s right or wrong.

Why do you believe it’s time to take control of federal lands? What benefits are there?

There’s an economic and environmental urgency. You have more than 30 percent of states' revenue coming from a federal government that admits it is broke. And there’s no backup plan. Then there are literally trillions of resources locked up in the lands. The states have the hardest time funding education because they have no control of revenues that states that control land do. Environmentally, we have a situation where failed federal policies — one size fits all — destroys forests, habitats, and so you have both of those environmental and economic urgency.

Is it your view that the 10th Amendment also applies to Bundy’s claims?

In terms of that situation, it's so much bigger than that. This is about the federal government failing to uphold the same promise. Yes, to the extent that all powers not specifically delegated to [the federal] government are reserved to the state and never reserved to keep land forever. There’s so much more to historical and constitutional analysis in that the states did give a quick claim deal to the government's trustee to then extinguish title to dispose of the land. And that’s the exact same promise Oklahoma, Alabama, North and South Dakota received, and the federal government owned that contract.

Why, then, are they not honoring the other states?

That’s the question! Some of the crazy things we’ve heard, like “You didn’t want the land,” "Your land is arid" — that’s not in the Constitution. The arid clause of the Constitution? I actually had a senior congressional staffer say because of polygamy at statehood, Utah had to give up its land. What about the rest of the states? Those are the kind of nonsensical excuses that people make for Western states that have been treated radically differently.

It’s really a challenging question to see who’s right or wrong.

Ken Ivory

Utah state representative

Are you optimistic about the outcome of Friday’s summit, and what are you hoping to achieve in the long run?

This Friday there’s the Western GOP leadership conference, and we’re premastering a panel on transfer of public lands. This is where problems of this magnitude are solved: constitutional representatives of the people of the states standing together to resolve a systemic issue of this magnitude. For this summit we agreed to form an executive committee made up of local House and Senate members and coordinate on a four-step process to compel Congress to honor the same promise to our states. The first step is education. If Congress isn’t willing to work with us, then we’re looking at litigation.

Whether you stand in line with Bundy’s action or not, there are several legal issues here. He didn’t pay, he doesn’t recognize the federal government.

You have a bad foundation. Government built a bad foundation, so to come in and point fingers on who was wrong first, and then coming in a pure civil matter in the most egregious manner — it is disproportionate. We need to step back. It is bigger than Bundy. We must engage the constitutional officers in the state to solve a systemic problem.

Kenneth W. Cole

Kenneth W. Cole, the Western Watersheds Project’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator, is a fifth-generation Idahoan who grew up accompanying his father, who worked for the Forest Service, on outings in central Idaho. It was during this time that he developed an appreciation of and respect for the natural environment and gained firsthand knowledge of the destructive impact of livestock grazing on public lands.

Inside Story: Why do you call Bundy a “welfare rancher”?

Kenneth W. Cole: Grazing fees have never actually paid for the administrative costs of livestock ranching on public lands. It has run a deficit for many years. There has been a GAO [Government Accountability Office] report that came out several years ago that the cost of administering the grazing program on public lands is over $144 million a year. Grazing fees only cover some $21 million of that.

And that does not factor in a lot of the other costs that may not have a monetary value. They include the damage it does to wildlife. It is the most ubiquitous use of land in the West. There are a lot of species endangered by habitat damage caused on public land.

Right now we are dealing with sage grouse in the West. Their habitat is in 11 different Western states. [The government has] to make a decision in 2015 as to whether they will be listed as a threatened or endangered species. Grazing is a big part of why they are in peril. In Bundy’s case the desert tortoise is one of the primary issues. I am not involved in all of the research on those tortoises, but it does impact them by competing with them for food — specifically the plants they eat.

[An] impact by livestock grazing is the increase in invasive species including the rise of annual grass species that cause fires.

Kenneth W. Cole

Coordinator, Western Watersheds Project

Some ranchers argue that hunting predators can balance the regional ecology as effectively as protecting the environment.

Well, I disagree with that. Cattle grazing enhances the number of predators that prey on desert tortoise, such as ravens. Ravens have been shown to drastically increase by the presence of cattle. Cattle die and ravens scavenge on them. Then, of course, there are different structures like corrals and windmills that may not be the case in Bundy’s area — these structures will provide nesting areas for ravens. Water troughs will subsidize ravens. A lot of things about livestock grazing increase numbers of predators.

Cover for species like sage grouse to hide from ravens is drastically decreased by livestock as well.

Another impact by livestock grazing is the increase in invasive species including the rise of annual grass species that cause fires. In the northern great basin of Idaho, where I live, is a big area for sagebrush. What has happened over the years is that the livestock have impacted the plants and soil and spread invasive species like cheat grass, which dries out quicker and is more likely to catch fire.

Why should we care about the tortoise or the sage grouse? The ranchers argue that the economic productivity from ranching is more important.

More important to who? It is more important to them than the American taxpayer. The taxpayer is not just subsidizing grazing fees; we are giving them direct subsidy payments as well. It impacts clean water too. We have to clean the water affected by livestock grazing. Our fisheries are affected by higher water temperatures. The impacts are vast. And the livestock industry seems to be content to outsource the externalities onto the public.

The above panel shared their thoughts for the broadcast of "Inside Story" to discuss.

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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