Land, Livestock, and Liberty: Who Owns Nevada?

The Constitution Party position on the deeper issues of federal control over public lands

by Darrell Castle

Cliven+Bundy+Nevada+Rancher+Federal+Government+OWY4w2Gomial It is April 2014.  What in the world is happening in Clark County, Nevada?  A better question might be who owns Nevada?  The struggle in Nevada involves a 600,000 acre area called Gold Butte, near the Utah border.  Mr. Cliven Bundy claims an inherent right to graze his cattle there since his family, he says, has lived there for more than 140 years and built much of the infrastructure in the local area.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says Mr. Bundy owes $1,100,000 in grazing fees, having been in trespass for more than 20 years.  Mr. Bundy refuses to acknowledge federal authority in Nevada.

Mr. Bundy believes, “We own this land and not the federal government”.   Usually reported by the corporate media is the view that Mr. Bundy is illegally grazing his cattle on public lands in Clark County, Nevada.  The BLM stands firmly on the premise that the land is public land, owned by the U.S. Government.  The agency insists that it has exhausted its legal remedies and that Mr. Bundy has refused to comply with many court orders.  They say they have no choice except to round up Mr. Bundy’s cattle and sell them for past due grazing fees.  Mr. Bundy is willing to pay grazing fees but only to Clark County, Nevada, not to the Bureau of Land Management. 

Mr. Bundy believes he has a prior right to graze his cattle on public lands due to his family’s existence on the land since the 1800’s, long before the existence of the BLM.  But the federal government says wait a minute, we stole this land from the Indians many, many years ago, long before Nevada was a state and when by court precedent the land passes into statehood, that doesn’t mean we no longer own it.

Do either of these competing claims hold any validity?  For the answer, we turn to the Constitution and the associated documents like the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration tells us that the purpose of government in, Mr. Jefferson’s immortal words “is to secure our God given rights”.  The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were created by the states on behalf of “We the people”.

The Constitution created three branches of government with three separate functions acting as agent for the states.  Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution known as the Enclave clause authorizes Congress to purchase, own and control land in a state under specific and limited circumstances.

“To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district (not exceeding 10 miles square) as made by session of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress,  become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of military forts, magazines, arsenals, stockyards and other needful buildings.”

The Enclave Clause authorized Congress to purchase land for the District of Columbia, Washington D.C., as we know it now, and also to purchase territory for military forts, magazines, arsenals, stockyards, and other such things.  As you can see clearly, the Enclave clause does authorize Congress to do these things and to control land in a state under certain very limited circumstances.  Those circumstances, though, certainly do not include protection of an endangered tortoise as federal government authority now insists is part of the reason for the seizure of Mr. Bundy’s cattle.  It does not include selling so-called public lands to Chinese corporations for the building of solar energy plants as has been alleged.   By the way, when the government uses the term “Public” what it really means is “U.S. Government”.  The U.S. Government often refers to itself as the public, but in reality is simply the government.  The question then becomes — who owns Nevada?   Currently, the U.S. Government claims it owns approximately 87% of the state of Nevada.  Shockingly, that is correct, 87%.  However, there are movements in Nevada’s legislature from time to time demanding the return of what Nevadans see as illegally seized land.   To the federal government, however, these movements are apparently just empty threats.

James Madison, who wrote most of the Constitution, said in Federalist #45 “The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few and defined”.   Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, recently stated that “No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists, nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans.”  The Constitution Party wishes to thank Governor Sandoval for his support of Mr. Bundy in that regard.  It would also be constitutionally-appropriate for a battalion of Nevada National Guardsmen, equipped for desert combat, to be called by the Governor to stand with the Bundy family and their supporters as they insist on preserving their Constitutional rights.

The protest was strong.  The BLM has now released the Bundy cattle back to the Bundy family.  The agency said it was concerned about the safety of its employees and of the public but there was no concern for the rights of the citizens.  Is this the end of the dispute, or could the Clark County confrontation be just a preview of future conflict between the federal government and the citizens of various sovereign states?  Time will tell. 

Read the Constitution Party platform on Environment for a more information about the Constitution Party’s position on land use and ownership issues.