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Conquest. Yes, It's a Thing

There are many policies reasons why this should be the case. And it's worth noting that the great comedy of bozos like the Bundys is that the whole federal lands management operation in the western states is something the federal government spends quite a lot of money on as a sort of rancher welfare program.

But again, why does the federal government own this land? In the great majority of cases, virtually all of it in acreage terms, the federal government owns it because it conquered it, either from various Indian tribes or from the Mexican government, which itself owned it by right of conquest (so same difference.) Some of the land was ceded by treaties too - but in most cases treaties under compulsion or treaties meant to tidy up the loose ends of conquest.

Now, plenty of Indian tribes may have a pretty legitimate beef over this. And here we have a story about one of the tribes located right near the standoff telling the militants to "Get the hell out of here." But if the contest is between the ranchers and the federal government, it's pretty clear the land belongs to the federal government, as a trust for the American people.