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Editorial: ‘Public’ land is not open for just anything

Federal land is not a free-for-all

First Published Apr 08 2014 05:12 pm • Last Updated Apr 23 2014 04:34 pm

The whole concept of "public land" can be easily misunderstood. Especially if it is in the personal financial interest of someone to misunderstand it.

The vast expanses of land throughout the West owned by the United States of America are, in a very important sense, public. That is, they are owned by all the people of the United States and managed, for better or worse, by our federal government.

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But just because something is public doesn’t give all, or any, members of the public the right to wander onto that land and do anything they want. Grazing cattle, rounding up wild horses, running off-road vehicles or doing other things anybody pleases — under the theory that federal land is public and open — makes no more sense than claiming that anybody who feels like it can set up a hot dog stand in the Capitol Rotunda or bed down for the night in the White House.

(Insert jokes about the special privileges afforded to big-time campaign contributors here.)

In Utah’s Iron County, local officials are itching to round up herds of wild horses that they say, with reason, are competing with ranchers’ cattle for the scarce grazing sustenance to be found in that drought-stricken part of the world. And they are threatening to go ahead with or without the approval of the agency that is legally in charge of the acreage in question, the Bureau of Land Management.

In Nevada’s Clark County, it is the BLM that is conducting a roundup. Its agents are gathering, and plan to sell, some 900 head of cattle, many of them owned by rancher Cliven Bundy.

Bundy claims his Mormon forebears settled that harsh land long before the BLM was a gleam in the bureaucracy’s eye and that he thus has the right to continue to run his cattle over some 600,000 parched acres near the Virgin River in an area called Gold Butte.

The BLM seriously differs, saying Bundy owes them more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and that he was supposed to have ended his activities in the area in 1998 because he refused to comply with efforts to minimize threats to endangered species, specifically the desert tortoise.

Bundy and his supporters are threatening to wage a "range war" with the feds, and BLM rangers did briefly arrest — and, allegedly, "rough up" — one of Bundy’s sons Sunday.

The whole issue is so hot that Utah officials successfully petitioned the BLM to cancel plans to move some of the seized cattle to Utah for storage and sale. The matter will remain a Nevada one, at least for now.

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It would be madness for anyone to come to blows over either issue. Government officials, of course, are those most responsible for seeing that cooler heads prevail.

But the fact is, all this land has an owner. It is the federal government. Anyone who behaves otherwise is trespassing, and must be treated as such.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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