Monday, January 18, 2016

Why The Bundy Public-Land Standoff Will Happen Again, And Again

by Frank Miniter

...This same issue had bloody results in the 1880s. Back then Rawlins was a sheep town. Indeed, it has been contended that the sheep wagon was invented in Rawlins by blacksmith James Candlish in 1884. As is typical in a small community where many have an interest in the same industry, a dispute over the resource grew. On one side were the Cosgriff Brothers who had large flocks of sheep and their own banks, and on the other was former Rawlins sheriff Isaac C. Miller who also had large sheep interests and, with John E. Osborne, owned the Rawlins National Bank. In 1898 a battle broke out between the Cosgriff Bothers and Miller over the issue of open range and the acquisition of property in “checkerboard fashion” in order to lock up land.

Miller had leased nineteen odd-numbered sections of property from the Union Pacific to winter his sheep. The Cosgriff Brothers, on the other hand, relied on open range for the pasturing of their sheep and so drove their flocks onto Miller’s lands where the sheep proceeded to strip the land bare of grass. Miller’s foreman drove the Cosgriff sheep off three times. In response, Thomas Cosgriff armed his men for the purpose of, in his own words, “the protection of the herds against the deprivations of wolves in any form.” A bloody range war ensued in which no one was the winner and in which a few Hollywood movies have been loosely based.

The U.S. Supreme Court took up this issue in 1979. In that case, the Leo Sheep Company had barred public access to the Seminoe Reservoir by its ownership of alternating sections. The court sided with the landowners. They found checkerboard control to be legal and even barred people from crossing the public land at the corners of the squares.

But the issue wasn’t resolved in everyone’s mind. I took a picture of Hardee standing next a sign that read “KEEP OUT. Trespassers will be shot, and if only wounded, shot again!” His GPS showed that the sign was on public land.

When this photo was handed to my editor, he said, “This idiot’s gonna get shot.”

Which is what almost happened. Weeks later Hardee was shooting film of public land that was posted private and proving it with his GPS unit when a bullet smashed into his windshield. Several more shots were fired, but the shooter was never found, and, with many threats to his life, Hardee moved to another part of the state soon thereafter.

The news was printed in the pages of the Rawlins Daily Times and then forgotten; it was just another footnote in the land-rich and cash-poor region of the West where so much land is public and contested and where the status quo isn’t as much a truce as a lull in the action.

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