Demand Management, Climate Change, and the Livestock Grazing Crisis in the Great Basin
6 Geo. Wash. J. Energy & Envtl. L., no. 3 (Winter 2016)
35 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2014 Last revised: 15 Jan 2016
Date Written: July 10, 2014
In March of 2014, an armed conflict erupted over livestock grazing on federal land near Bunkerville, Nevada, in the heart of the geographic area known as the Great Basin. The national news media descended as soon as word spread that guns were involved, in pursuit of a modern-day wild west story involving a cattle rancher named Cliven Bundy, who claimed to be fending off the federal government as it ostensibly sought to destroy his livelihood by taking his grazing “rights” and, eventually, his cattle. Like-minded ranchers and miliamen poured in from several western states, armed and determined to aid Bundy in his “David and Goliath” battle against the federal government. “This is a lot bigger deal than just my cows,” Bundy told Fox News. “It’s a statement for liberty and freedom and the Constitution.” As the media circus unfolded, Bundy’s supporters argued that BLM’s cancellation of his grazing rights and seizure of his livestock violated his “Constitutional rights” to graze cattle on federal public lands. On the other side of the ideological spectrum were those who seized on Bundy’s hyperbolic statements regarding the rule of law and race relations to portray him as a fringe lunatic intent on declaring war over political sentiment and senseless right-wing ideology. As is often the case, though, the true story is not so cut-and dried. It seemed true that Bundy had declared war on the federal government, by continually violating the terms of his federal grazing permits and then by forcibly resisting the efforts of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to enforce court orders requiring him to remove his cattle from grazing allotments near Bunkerville and enjoining his illegal grazing activities.
The intensity of the tension between Bundy and the BLM surprised a lot of people unfamiliar with the political, ecological, and social history of the Great Basin. It seemed hard for many to believe that tensions over access to federal lands and the rule of law, about anthropomorphic climate change and resource scarcity, could really result in this type of conflict, let alone many.
The truth, to those who are familiar with the region, is that these conflicts have erupted in the Great Basin region for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. The cycle of resource use, and resource scarcity, are nothing new to natural resources scholars, regional historians, or local residents. Now, the cycle includes a new variable: the uncertainties associated with climate change. These tensions and this cycle will continue, no doubt, unless there are significant changes in the way that federal public lands are managed, and in the way that the regulated communities perceive and use the common natural resources at stake.
In Part I, this Article will describe the Great Basin, which is a closed ecological region with peculiar and delicate component ecosystems. In Part II, the author will review the Great Basin’s anthropological history, and establish the cyclical patterns of human use and habitation for the region. Part III will explain the legal regime governing livestock grazing on public lands, from the disposal era to the present. Part IV will present the historical climate trends in the Great Basin region, as well as the climate predictions for the next century, based on currently available data. Finally, Part V will explain the recent executive “calls to action” for federal lands planning agencies in light of climate concerns, explaining how implementation of these measures will likely require agencies to promulgate new regulations, and present the theory of demand management as an integral means of effecting the new livestock grazing use patterns that climate change will require.
Keywords: federal lands, livestock grazing, climate change, Bureau of Land Management, demand management, and water demand management
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