If you took a map of the United States and colored the federally-owned land in red it would appear as if the American West was bleeding. Or on fire.
The ongoing Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada is evidence of that. On April 5, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, utilizing helicopters and hired cowboys, began removing Cliven Bundy’s 900 head of “trespassing” cattle. Citing threats from Bundy over the past two decades, the feds arrived with their own law enforcement including hilltop snipers and attack dogs. Two designated “free speech areas” were set up by authorities which was insult-to-injury to Bundy supporters, many of whom were well-armed. Soon YouTube was sparking with videos of citizens being “Tased” and set upon by dogs. Not good public relations for the feds. Bundy, on the other hand, looked like a paunchy John Wayne, though some have reason to question if his white hat really represents his nature.
It’s easy to have sympathy for the state of Nevada. Would you enjoy living where 85% of the land is federally-owned; the largest urban center is nicknamed Sin City; vast landscapes hold the ESA protected Desert Tortoise; your senior U.S. Senator, Harry Reid, is pugnacious; and your history — including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s-80s — is one of conflict.
It is not quite as easy to have sympathy for Bundy, though one may concede a certain admiration. Bundy is not of the ilk of the late E. Wayne Hage, whose Nevada ranching family continues its seventeen-year battle against the BLM and government intimidation. The Hage family wins lawsuits. Bundy, representing himself, loses.
To Bundy supporters it doesn’t matter if he is scalawag, scofflaw, skunk, or saint. He is there. And those on the far right are demanding that he is theirs. This question of character and whether it counts, has caused deep division in the already-fractured West. On a personal level, I’ve had numerous people, including two friends, challenge me passionately because I urge caution before jumping on the Bundy bandwagon. “This is a bellwether event,” one said, insisting Bundy had to be championed “warts and all.” The issue, they say, is not the catalyst but vast government overreach.
Those of us who remember the Montana Freemen Standoff, and I was close to it, don’t jump quickly. Through the late winter and spring of 1996, I watched convoys of FBI and news media vehicles drive past my eastern Montana ranch on their way to Brusett, Montana where the Freemen — described by Wikipedia as a Christian Patriot movement — were barricaded in a small farm house the media called a “compound.” The vehicles went north in the morning. They returned at night. The Freemen spouted lofty ideals, but essentially, were farmers in financial trouble who hated banks, liked guns, and used bullying tactics. The FBI used restraint, but no one believed they wanted to. What seemed to have a Waco-destiny to it, was resolved peacefully when a true ‘white hat,’ Montana Lt. Governor Karl Ohs, rode his horse up to the compound and talked the Freemen out. Long prison terms awaited them.
The two situations, Bunkerville and Brusett, have similarities but also significant differences. The Freemen were attacking an economic system, the Bundys, at their best, are challenging a states rights issue, and hopefully, will bring attention to the need to reform the Endangered Species Act. The Montana Freemen, however, are now just a footnote in history. Years from now, how will this Bundy incident be seen?
The last sentence above sounds like a concluding question, but the story is larger than Cliven Bundy and Bunkerville and reveals a terrifying reality. The rural West is fed-up. We are tired of being treated like the nation’s petting zoo, tourist destination, and ecological petri dish by eastern elites, left coast Cannabis consumers, agitated animal rights activists, and the assorted high priests of the High Church of Environmentalism.