Ammon Bundy, the leader of a group occupying Oregon’s Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge, and his followers are flagrant lawbreakers. The Bundy clan has now twice crossed the line between civil disobedience and dangerous, armed anti-government agitation. Law enforcement has taken a patient approach, which is prudent. We are tempted to recommend that federal authorities simply let Bundy and his fellow crackpots shiver in the cold. That strategy may do for the time being.

Yet, as Bundy and his gang insist, this is the people’s land — and these outlaws are keeping the people from enjoying it. Wildlife refuges exist for public recreation, such as bird watching at Malheur, as well as to preserve habitat. Eventually, Bundy and his gang will have to go — or be removed. Then they should be criminally charged.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the Bundy clan’s actions help discredit the persistent movement challenging federal ownership of land. The federal government owns roughly 30 percent of U.S. territory, its holdings concentrated in vast, relatively unpopulated Western states. These lands are open to mining, logging, ranching and other economic activities — but, since the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, are subject to restrictions meant to balance those uses with other legitimate concerns, such as preservation and recreation.

For decades legislatures in Western states have chafed against the rules, sometimes illegally claiming rights over federal property. It should have surprised no one when the Bundy family’s first armed protest received praise from conservative pundits and politicians. Yet the Constitution explicitly allows the federal government to own and manage land; moreover, states such as Nevada explicitly waived any rights over federally owned land when they became states. The arguments otherwise are nothing but self-serving nonsense, and the courts have consistently said so.

Even clear law and precedent did not stop Utah from trying again in 2012, ordering the federal government to turn over virtually all federal land to the state’s control by 2014. The feds rightly ignored the command. But this kind of grandstanding encourages the constitutional mythologies of the Bundys and other anti-government extremists.

The only body that can turn over federal land is Congress, which has set land policy since the country’s founding. Western states can appeal to their representatives to fight for looser restrictions on federal property or for the federal government to sell its tracts. They would encounter opposition from environmentalists, outdoorsmen and others who prefer that the federal government properly balance the interests of ranchers and miners with those of everyone else. Too bad: Washington — not the statehouse in Utah or an occupied wildlife refuge in Oregon — is the only place where these differences can be resolved with legitimacy.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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