Whatever you’ve read or seen on television, a new “Sagebrush Rebellion” of public-land ranchers against the federal government has not erupted in rural Nevada. What’s happened there can best be described as the last act of a long-running dispute between a delusional rancher and a hapless federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management. Unfortunately, the controversy has attracted anti-government zealots, who see this as an opportunity to “fight for freedom,” and the media has enthusiastically followed them. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this kind of piling-on has happened before.
The first time I experienced something like it was back in 1995 in the old Hamilton, Mont., high school gym. The Militia of Montana had rented the joint and a pretty good crowd showed up — though I’m pleased to say it was not as large as the crowds we used to draw for the all-star basketball games I organized when I lived in the Bitterroot. I remember one of those speakers promising that something big would happen on April 19, the second anniversary of the Waco tragedy. And yes, something did: April 19, 1995, was the day “Patriot” member Timothy McVeigh set off a fertilizer bomb outside a daycare in Oklahoma City so he could blow up hundreds of working people.
Montana’s “militia” wasn’t involved in the bombing. They were just repeating the chatter of other extremists. But those violent crackpots of the 1990s, the ones who read the Constitution with a keen eye for any word or phrase they could twist into a rationale to relieve themselves of responsibility for anything, held many Montana communities hostage through their twisted assaults on civil society. They fancied themselves “freemen” avenging Ruby Ridge or Waco or any other violent standoff that they could exploit for their own interests.
If you wonder about the mental health credentials of Cliven Bundy, the rancher at the heart of the protest in Nevada, or the groupies who descended on the desert in support of their God-given right to steal from the American people, do a Google search for the Reuters photo of the “protester” sprawled out on an I-15 bridge, gun drawn on BLM officers. These are zealots with a tragically inflated sense of self-importance. They are the most dangerous kind.
Rancher Bundy didn’t like the regulations that the BLM imposed on the federal lands he leased to graze his cattle, so he went to court to protest them. He lost, and lost again.
Cattle grazing in the Southwest is a tough business. There’s not much water. It’s often profitable only if you get access to a lot of publicly owned land on the cheap. But Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees in 1993, and insisted that the federal government had no right to bill him for using public land near his 160-acre ranch, partly, he said, because his own ranch was so old. The feds issued warnings, revoked his permit and obtained several court orders, but took no other action. Finally, they decided they had to get tough. At stake were threatened desert tortoises; Bundy refused to obey an order to remove his cattle from an area known as Gold Butte, which was designated habitat for the species.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the BLM, as it’s often seemed the least effective federal agency. But I think the best approach involves working to reform the agency, and more important, properly funding it so it can do its job with a degree of professionalism.
None of that matters to Bundy. Once he saw the writing on the wall — that the law wasn’t on his side — he reacted like all those other Western thugs we’ve been dealing with for decades. He started making up his own law. He’s amazingly blunt about it, announcing that he does not “recognize the United States as even existing.”
The overwhelming majority of the 16,000 public-land ranchers pay us for the opportunity to graze their cattle on our land. I’ve watched many of them form partnerships with government agencies and incorporate ecological restoration as an integral part of their ranching operations. And I’ve watched those efforts produce varied results on the land. All these examples of cooperation form a stark contrast to what’s happening in Nevada.
Let’s look at the facts: Bundy hasn’t paid for his grazing leases for decades. Yet his cattle still graze on our land, eating our grass and probably making that part of the Nevada desert ever less suitable for desert tortoises. Meanwhile, Bundy paints himself as a victim of the jackbooted feds.
If any of us tried to get away with that, we’d have been in jail long ago. It just goes to show that if you’re willing to wave a tattered pocket copy of the Constitution above your head (even if you don’t understand it) while shouting “freedom” at the top of your lungs, you can get away with almost anything. And that’s why these people are so dangerous.
Rob Breeding is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Powell, Wyo.