Why We Fight over Western Lands

Last week’s surprising acquittal of Ammon Bundy and six others in the trial over the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has once again elevated federal land issues to the national stage, and many questions remain. But despite all the media attention on the trial, many have overlooked the underlying issues that make federal lands so contentious in the first place.

There have been many other instances of conflicts on western lands. But why are some ranchers so upset with the federal government? Much of it is the result of federal land policies that encourage conflict instead of cooperation. We fight over western lands because it is unclear who has which rights. Land-use decisions are often made in the political arena or in the courts rather than negotiated locally between competing groups—and that is a recipe for conflict.

As long as these rights are unclear, the fights will continue. Until we find ways to clarify grazing rights and encourage more negotiation instead of conflict, we are likely to witness even more fighting over western lands in the future, regardless of what happens to the Bundy family.

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