What’s going on in Nevada? Why is cattle rancher Cliven Bundy threatening violence toward American law enforcement officials? Why he is fighting so hard over grazing fees?
Cliven Bundy is a wealthy Nevada cattle rancher who has recently made national headlines thanks to his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. His brand of quasi-libertarian “Sovereign Citizen” civil disobedience has provoked polarizing responses in the media and the populace as a whole. Multiple op-eds have been penned defending his refusal to pay federal fees for his illegal cattle grazing on public lands. Bundy himself claims to not recognize the legitimacy or even the existence of the federal government, and claims to be a citizen only of Nevada, and is grazing his cattle on land owned by Nevada. The federal government, which has owned the land longer than Nevada has been a state, disagrees, and has spent 20 years requesting the Bundy move his cattle off federal land or pay fines. Land disputes of this type have occurred elsewhere, though this is on a larger scale than prior events. However, this fairly straightforward story includes a deeper background that may help explain exactly what all this means.
In 1848, the United States Government purchased vast swaths of the southwest from Mexico. 16 years later, Nevada became a state, but the Federal government maintained ownership of most of the land that the state occupied. The Nevada State Constitution explicitly acknowledged Federal laws trumping state laws in situations where they conflict. The state has not challenged the ownership of the land, and as of 2014, 87% of the state is still property of the U.S. government.
The area in the southeast corner of Nevada that Mr. Bundy has been using was part of a larger network of rangeland administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Rangeland differs from pastureland in that there are more rules as to what it can be used for. It is considered public property, and in certain areas, has been limited in use due to environmental concerns. The Gold Butte and Bunkerville areas in the southeast of the state had long been home to relatively fragile species and ecosystems. For years, that area was available for use by ranchers to graze their cattle. Overgrazing created increased vulnerability to wildfires as well as threatening several local animal species, in particular the desert tortoise. The desert tortoise was briefly designated as endangered in the late 1980’s, then upgraded to a “threatened” status. Limitations were put in place on the land it occupied to prevent it from slipping back to an endangered status. In 1993, land in the Bunkerville area was officially listed as off-limits for cattle grazing, and fees were put in place to those who continued to use it.
Cliven Bundy, and a few other area ranchers protested this change, and fought it in court. Bundy alternated claims. He stated that he held grazing rights on the federal land, which he claims had been used by his ancestors as far back as 1877. No records granting any pre-emptive or special grazing rights could be found, and he lost his dispute. The only grazing rights he had in the area came from the normal grazing allotment permits that all ranchers had access to. Research by the court only found that Bundy’s father had used the Bunkerville allotment from 1954 on and off for a few years, then begun paying the standard permits for it again from 1977 to 1993.
During the court case, Bundy also claimed that the federal government did not legally own the land, and that it was held by the state of Nevada. This claim was also disproven, by both the historical record of federal ownership, and by the Nevada Constitution itself. The land was never his to begin with, and there was no special right established for him to use it unimpeded. He and his family used the land for several decades on and off until the government deemed cattle grazing in that particular area to be ecologically unsound.
Specifically, The BLM decided that a financial penalty would be needed to offset the damages being caused, unless Bundy agreed to remove the cattle altogether. The fee primarily consisted of $1.35 per head of cattle. Per state and federal laws, many dating back to well before Bundy’s family ever used the land, the BLM was operating lawfully and correctly. Many thousands of ranchers in the American Southwest pay grazing fees for use of public rangeland such as the Bunkerville area. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 all provided legal means for governmental regulation of rangelands. Grazing restrictions in particular were covered by the Taylor Grazing Act, allowing the federal government to designate what lands could be used for what purpose, and providing for permits and fees to be assessed when necessary.
Cliven Bundy’s legal claims have been thoroughly demolished. He was a longtime user of public lands that were always subject to federal regulation. Overuse of the land caused a rapid degradation of the local ecology, and the BLM acted to preserve that land. Some conspiracy theorists have alleged that Nevada Senator Harry Reid had forced Bundy and other ranchers off the land in order to make way for a solar plant financed by Chinese investors. Much of the theory makes use of the patriotic angle, that a “liberal” politician was forcing good Americans off their own land to make way for foreigners. Of course, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Ground was broken for construction of a solar plant. However, the solar plant was a project by the Paiute Indians, it was specifically meant to replace a closing coal plant, and it was actually on a completely different stretch of land ten miles west of the Bunkerville area. None of the conspiracies hold up to deeper investigation.
Meanwhile, since the rule changes were enacted in 1993, Cliven Bundy repeatedly refused to either vacate the grazing lands or pay required fines. The BLM, well aware of standoffs between right wing extremists and the federal government around that time, tread very lightly. They primarily sent Bundy bills, with increasing penalties and interest. Bundy went to court to fight, as well as repeatedly made veiled, and sometimes not-so veiled, threats of violence in response. His cattle continued to damage the rangelands in the Bunkerville and Gold Butte regions. They also found their way onto surrounding private properties, and multiple complaints were filed against Bundy. Multiple farms and properties reported trampled and eaten crops. The Mesquite Heritage Community Garden and the Mesquite golf course were both trampled by his herds. A state park employee was attacked by a bull from his herd at the Overton Wildlife Refuge. Bundy has been a nuisance to both public and private interests.
In the last few months, the BLM has finally started taking action against Cliven Bundy. Twenty years passed before real action finally occurred. Cattle have been counted by helicopter, land has been physically cut off from herd movement, and in the last few weeks, almost 400 trespassing cattle were successfully penned. 90% of the cattle rounded up displayed Bundy’s brand. Public safety as well as the aforementioned environmental issues were cited as the primary reasons for the round up. Bundy spent two decades disobeying requests to comply with legal and constitutional orders.
Bundy’s response was one of belligerence. Bundy and his supporters called in members of private militias and fringe political groups, who protested the roundup. The protest was officially non-violent. However, on April 10, the protests became more aggressive and threatening. Law enforcement officials were attacked and people were arrested. One of Bundy’s adult children was tasered by law enforcement, which is certainly unfortunate. The whole situation was ugly, to say the least. But wait, there was more…
April 12 brought more militias, this time heavily armed. They blocked Interstate 15 for more than two hours, backing up traffic for miles in both directions. The preserve that housed the seized cattle was also blockaded by the protesters. The protesters threatened violent action if the BLM rangers didn’t back down, and used human shields to aid in the threat. The BLM eventually agreed to back down and return the cattle. They, understandably, did not want another violent confrontation like the incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 90’s. As of this time (April 22), the cattle are back in the hands of Bundy, and the BLM has backed down. Senator Reid has indicated the issue will continue to be pursued legally.
From what I can see, Cliven Bundy is 100% wrong. He states that the only government he recognizes is the Nevada government. However, the Nevada Constitution, which was crafted during the Civil War, explicitly and clearly mentions the higher status of federal laws over the state’s. He has been to court twice, and lost both times, yet continued to graze his cattle on environmentally protected land, as well as allowing cattle encroachment onto private land, while refusing to pay fees and penalties. His defense consists of long-refuted arguments only used by the fringe right wing, and rejected by all mainstream legal experts. He has openly called for revolution against the federal government, which he claims to be illegitimate. Bundy threatens violence when attempts are made to enforce the laws. His supporters can only muster weak conspiracy theories and the same legal claims that he makes. Meanwhile, the BLM is significantly weakened by backing down, though they were right to avoid bloodshed. Nobody wants a massacre. Well, maybe Bundy himself does. He made it clear that he was hoping for an armed confrontation. Many in the modern militia movement would like nothing better than to start an actual armed conflict with what they believe to be a heavy-handed and even authoritarian government. Many are of the belief that such a conflict would inspire others and eventually lead to the overthrow of the government.
This type of thinking is not new, but it is dangerous. Bundy is doing his best to incite real anarchy in the heavily subsidized southwest, forgetting that the state owes its existence to an active federal government, which simply wanted to expand the nation with non-slave states during the Civil War. Major government installations, military and research bases, and huge public works projects such as the Hoover Dam helped to build Nevada. Now an angry, misinformed, and largely unpopular extremist rancher who didn’t want to pay his bill is creating massive instability in the state.
Cliven Bundy is not the first extremist to start trouble, and he won’t be the last. His ideas are well out of the mainstream, but he enjoys popularity among those who tend to oppose pretty much anything Democratic governments stand for. He’s not going to inspire the war that many eliminationists and nullifiers desperately wish for. But he and others like him will continue to be a headache for and a burden on the American public. Harry Reid was right that this isn’t over. It won’t be over, though, even if Bundy is jailed.
Here are some good articles that explain the situation with greater detail and clarity that I can provide: