The Planted Row: Nevada rancher is playing a dangerous game

Farm Forum

More than 200 years ago, farmers around the country produced a kind of ethanol of their own, but they didn’t do it in large cooperative refineries. Instead, they distilled their excess corn and grain into whiskey. Unlike bulk grain, whiskey was easy to transport and trade. It was considered a standard practice, and farmers used it as a way to earn extra income.

In 1791, the newly formed United States government struggled under the weight of its war debt. The federal government assumed responsibility for millions of dollars of Revolutionary War debts accrued by states that had little means of repaying them. The newly ratified Constitution gave the federal government the authority to levy taxes. Washington’s administration decided to place a tax on what it considered a luxury item — whiskey.

The move was unpopular with farmers in all the states, but those in western Pennsylvania, many of whom were veterans of the war, were particularly upset. They felt they were being taxed without representation since their legislators hadn’t approved the tax. On the other hand, the government was doing what it had to do to pay its debt.

For 3 years, officials attempted to collect the tax, and they were met with threats and violent attacks. Eventually, there were deaths and threats of widespread violence and secession.

At first President Washington tried to settle the matter peacefully, but when that failed, he led nearly 13,000 troops into western Pennsylvania. The armed protesters dispersed, and thus ended the Whiskey Rebellion.

We grant the government authority over us so that it can make and enforce the rules by which we all live together peacefully and prosper. We have a say in how our government operates, and the courts offer us some protections from abuse, but we can’t afford to disregard federal decisions just because we disagree with them. A government without the power to enforce its rules and affect change is no government at all. President Washington showed us in 1794 that for the country to operate peacefully, the threat of consequences must be present. The South had to learn that lesson the hard way 70 years later.

This week another challenge to federal power has been in the news. You’ll find a summary of the story on page 105F, and you can find an in-depth timeline of events at The gist of it is that in 1998, fairly or unfairly, a rancher named Cliven Bundy in Nevada was ordered by a federal court to stop grazing his cattle on federal land to protect the habitat for a threatened species of tortoise. Leading up to this point, federal employees had been threatened, and bombs had been detonated at government offices. Bundy refused to remove his cattle from federal land and refused to pay the resulting fines.

This went on for more than 15 years while the Bureau of Land Management attempted to resolve the matter. Finally, BLM rounded up Bundy’s cattle. Hundreds of ranchers and anti-government activists showed up with guns, and the threat of violence became very real. Last weekend, BLM decided to defuse the dangerous situation by releasing Bundy’s cattle, but this issue is far from over.

What happens next? Is it OK for Bundy and his armed friends to defy federal regulations and court decisions while continuing to enjoy the benefits and infrastructure of a strong government?

That’s a precedent we can’t afford to set. I support agriculture. I support gun ownership. However, I can never support an armed solution to a land use dispute. How many lives will be at risk if the feds have to demonstrate their authority to Bundy and his supporters with the only means left — the use of force?