Environmental mitigation necessary for a planned solar power project may have motivated the federal Bureau of Land Management’s decision to launch a military-style armed enforcement action against a Nevada cattle rancher, government documents reveal. According to the documents, BLM determined continued cattle grazing would interfere with the Bureau’s plans to use the land as an environmental mitigation area for desert tortoise disruption caused by the solar facility.
Longstanding Cattle Grazing
In 1993, the BLM designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal lands in Nevada for conservation to protect desert tortoises. The BLM told rancher Cliven Bundy—whose family had raised cattle on the land for generations—that he must dramatically reduce the number of cattle he could graze there. Bundy claimed his family’s rights to graze the land predated BLM oversight of the land, and he stopped paying grazing fees. In early April, the BLM sent in hundreds of armed agents to confiscate Bundy’s cattle and prevent him and his supporters from interfering with its roundup.
Bundy and his supporters point out desert tortoises are doing quite well on the land grazed by his cattle. The BLM has presented no evidence of declining desert tortoise numbers on the land.
Solar Power Plans
The website Infowars posted an article on April 11 showing BLM had posted documents expressing concern that plans to use the land to mitigate a solar power project were incompatible with the Bundy cattle continuing to graze on the land.
“Non-Governmental Organizations have expressed concern that the regional mitigation strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone utilizes Gold Butte as the location for offsite mitigation for impacts from solar development, and that those restoration activities are not durable with the presence of the trespass cattle,” read one of the BLM documents.
According to Infowars, “Deleted from BLM.gov but reposted for [posterity] by the Free Republic, the BLM document entitled ‘Cattle Trespass Impacts’ directly states that Bundy’s cattle ‘impacts’ solar development, more specifically the construction of ‘utility-scale solar power generation facilities’ on ‘public lands.'”
The BLM’s March 2014 Regional Mitigation Strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone states the BLM intends to use the land to “compensate for the loss of some of the habitat, visual resources, and ecological services that are expected from the development of the Dry Lake SEZ [Solar Energy Zone].”
Reid Gets Aggressive
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been particularly vocal about Bundy and his supporters, publicly calling them “domestic terrorists.” After the BLM halted its confiscation operation in the wake of public outrage and protests at the site, Reid vowed “something will happen” to put an end to Bundy’s cattle grazing.
Referring to the BLM’s armed enforcement efforts, Reid told Las Vegas television station KSNV, “It’s obvious that you can’t just walk away from this. And we can speculate all we want to speculate to what’s going to happen next. But I don’t think it’s going to be tomorrow that something is going to happen, but something will happen.”
Personal Stake for Reid?
Reid’s incendiary involvement in the dispute came under increased criticism after reports showed he has a personal stake in the issue and may be using BLM to further his personal interests. Reuters reported in August 2012 that Reid and his son Rory are working with Chinese solar power companies to build solar power facilities on Nevada BLM lands. Any such solar power facility would require environmental offset measures for desert tortoises, and the BLM subsequently designated Bundy’s grazing land for desert tortoise environmental mitigation.
According to Reuters, the Chinese solar power company hired Rory Reid’s law firm to represent them.
Further tying Sen. Reid to the ongoing controversy, the current head of the BLM is Neil Komze, Reid’s former chief of staff. According to the Washington Times, Komze “was hand-picked by Harry Reid” for the BLM position.
Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, told said there is more to the issue than the BLM simply rounding up cattle because of unpaid fees. In a broader context, Lawrence said, there is a lot of merit to Bundy’s “recalcitrance.”
“At the heart of this confrontation is a growing resentment throughout the American West—and Nevada in particular—of federal land dominion,” he said.
The federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada, leaving very little for ranchers and other private citizens. Lawrence noted Nevada is one of the most population-dense states regarding privately owned land, as residents are forced onto increasingly small plot sizes available for residential development.
When Nevada was entering statehood, it had to transfer lands to federal control temporarily, in order to clear title so those lands could be freely sold for private development, Lawrence explained. The federal government, however, reneged on its promises to return the land.
“After the western states were formed, Congress began to renege on this promise—essentially turning states like Nevada into federal colonies,” said Lawrence.
Bundy’s family settled the land in 1877, when control over Western lands was primarily governed by the Homestead Acts.
“As such, he has an argument that his family is the rightful owner of the land, since they were making improvements on it long before the BLM ever existed,” Lawrence explained.
Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.