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Mountain States Legal Foundation discusses property rights

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) hosted a monthly series called “So a Neighbor Asked,” which focused on answering questions regarding how secure individuals rights to property are, if property is safe from the government and what individuals can do to protect their property.

The presentation hosted Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, MSLF Senior Attorney Joe Bingham and MSLF Attorney David McDonald. 

Defining property

“Essentially, property is a landowner’s right to things exclusively,” begins McDonald. “It’s what separates my property from another’s.” 

Property can be thought of physical things – land, homes and other posessions, but when it comes to defining property, McDonald noted there are a million different ways a landowner can subdivide something they own. 

McDonald and Bingham explain over the years WSGA and MSLF have worked on several cases related to private and public lands. In some cases, its similar to a tenant renting an apartment. 

“For example, I’m a renter not a homeowner so I own my lease,” explains McDonald. “Since I don’t own the property, I can’t make structural alterations to the property, but I can choose who to exclude and who to admit, including my landlord.”  

In reference to the Upper Green River, environmentalists are trying to take away ranchers’ rights to their leases or permits, explains Bingham. 

Magagna notes it’s important to understand key principles when it comes to land ownership patterns in the West. 

“The Western U.S. is very much split into private land, state trust lands and federally managed lands – it’s all intermingled,” he says. 

He mentions in the West, ranchers think about these land ownerships or leases as a unit and want to best manage the unit to enhance the resources they need to take care of their livestock. In some of these cases, conflicts arise. 

Throughout his career, Magagna says the industry has frequently gone back and forth to determine whether property rights on federal public lands is a right or a privilege. 

“It’s a privilege only in one sense – it’s granted by the government,” shares Magagna. “It can be taken away by the government for abuse, regulatory non-compliance and under certain proper procedures. It can also be taken away or diminished if the resources can no longer support it.” 

He adds, “But, so long as the ranchers holds the lease, as far as we’re concerned, it is a property right.” 

In many cases, ranchers who hold grazing permits span across five to six generations. They have stability within the federal land management process and certainly necessary stability and contribution to the integrity of the ranching population, Magagna explains. 

Scale of federal
land ownership 

In Wyoming, the federal government controls and manages 48 percent of the land base, according to Magagna. 

He mentions there seems to be a public misconception about lands in the West. 

“There tends to be lack of understanding that somehow private property rights mean something less if a person owns large areas of undeveloped land and if they own a very small acreage of developed land,” he says. “One of the challenges is delivering this message.”

Bingham mentions nobody cares more about sustainability than somebody who owns lands and wants to pass it down to their children. 

“Ranchers don’t claim to own public lands, but they do take ownership responsibility for the management of those lands because they depend on them year after year, and their kids and grandkids depend on them for the sustainability of their ranching operation,” mentions Magagna. “Ranchers treat public lands with the same ownership responsibility of the lands they legally own.” 

Status of right to use 

According to McDonald, property rights are threatened in the U.S., but they are not in danger. 

“It’s very rare for the government to seize property,” he says. “It’s rare and expensive, but what is occurring more commonly is the changing of regulations or ʻred tape,ʼ which will ultimately impact ranchers who utilize federal grazing lands.” 

In closing, the problem is systemic, says McDonald. 

“There are a lot of good people working in these agencies who are trying their best,” he says. “A lot of the environmentalists see the world differently than we do. Maybe not as respectful as we would like, but a lot of it is systemic.” 

He adds, “A lot of this comes down to fighting against the structures of how things are built up within this system of laws and regulations, and it’s not necessarily about people being evil, wrong or wanting to do harm so much as we’re trying to inform people so they know what is going on. We also want to align these incentives and make sure the few bad actors have limited reach.” 

Bingham says, “The federal government is more afraid of environmentalists than they are of pro-liberty organizations, and this is just because there’s a vast disparity in funding. The only way the government’s calculation about who they are more afraid of is ever going to change is if people continue to support MSLF and our allied organizations in these fights.” 

Brittany Gunn is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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