Jack Kelly: Rancher Bundy is wrong, but so is federal corruption and overreach

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More than 100 heavily armed agents of the Bureau of Land Management cordoned off Cliven Bundy’s ranch April 5. Helicopters stampeded his cattle.

The federal government owns about 85 percent of the land in Nevada, most of which is managed by the BLM, an agency of the Department of the Interior.

There were 52 other ranchers in the Gold Butte, in Clark County about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, before the BLM sharply restricted grazing rights in 1993, ostensibly to protect the Mojave desert tortoise. Only the Bundy ranch remains.

Mr. Bundy, 67, stopped paying federal grazing fees and owes about $1.1 million for unpaid fees, fines and interest, the BLM says.

BLM said it was doing all this for the turtles, which are listed as “threatened” on the endangered species list. But grazing cattle pose no threat to the desert tortoise, range ecology expert Vernon Bostick noted in 1990.

The desert tortoise has no teeth, so it subsists primarily on dung, Mr. Bostic wrote in the journal Rangelands. Nutrients in the dung help the tortoises stave off disease, and “fresh cow dung is 85 to 90 percent water,” a valuable commodity in arid regions.

“The fewer the cattle on a range, the fewer the number of tortoises,” he concluded.

BLM has granted waivers for giant solar energy projects, which pose a genuine threat.

The Ivanpah facility in the Mojave desert about 50 miles south of Las Vegas covers an area four times the size of New York City’s Central Park. It will make the surrounding desert too hot for the desert tortoise to survive, said Barry Sinervo, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

The heat from its nearly 350,000 solar mirrors — up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit — already has scorched to death dozens of birds.

The $2.2 billion plant covers 6 square miles but will generate only 400 megawatts of electricity, which will cost three times as much as that produced from coal or natural gas.

“If this were an oil company, construction would have been halted and lawsuits filed,” said H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

But when you have powerful friends in Washington, rules get waived, no matter the damage to the environment. During the Obama administration, “the federal government has given a few solar power companies access to 21 million acres of the public’s lands — more than it has allowed for oil and gas exploration in the past decade,” Mr. Burnett said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took part in a ground-breaking ceremony in March for the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project, about 35 miles from the Bundy ranch.

BLM Director Neil Kornze is a former aide to Sen. Reid. A BLM document, since deleted from its website, indicated that BLM wants to move Mr. Bundy’s cattle out of Gold Butte to provide habitat for threatened species uprooted by solar projects, according to Infowars.com.

ENN Energy Group, a Chinese firm, planned to build a solar plant roughly twice the size of Ivanpah in Clark County. ENN was represented in the U.S. chiefly by Sen. Reid’s son Rory, an attorney and former chairman of the Clark County Commission, which voted to sell ENN 9,000 acres of public land for about 15 percent of its assessed value.

But sometimes even massive political clout can’t overcome the laws of physics. ENN abandoned the project last year because no one would buy its very expensive electricity.

Sen. Reid pressured BLM to swap 10,000 acres of federal land set aside for the desert tortoise to benefit billionaire real estate developer Harvey Whittemore, two public land advocacy groups charged in a 2006 lawsuit. Last year a jury convicted Mr. Whittemore of making illegal contributions to Sen. Reid.

Cliven Bundy refuses to pay grazing fees because he claims the federal government really doesn’t own the land. That’s nutty. But the BLM’s Gestapo tactics — which seemed intended more to intimidate than to collect a debt — angered and disgusted many who think it has the law on its side.

The Americans who protested those tactics are “domestic terrorists,” Sen. Reid said.

The protesters he smeared were peaceful and law abiding. The only violence was perpetrated by BLM agents, who roughed up Mr. Bundy’s son Ammon.

And when the law is manipulated so blatantly for the private profit of the politically connected, civil disobedience — al la Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. — may be more a duty than a crime.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

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