What made Nevada rancher fight the feds?

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Las Vegas rancher Cliven Bundy talks to supporters April 11, 2014, about the gathering of his cattle by the Bureau of Land Management. (Credit: KVVU)

WASHINGTON — When the Bureau of Land Management retreated from a standoff with Cliven Bundy, a few hundred people traveled to his Nevada ranch to protest what they see as an overreach of the federal government.

One protester from neighboring Utah, Stephen L. Dean, 45, called the Bureau of Land Management’s actions “tyranny in government.” And a banner at the protest site blared: “Has the West been won? Or has the fight just begun!”

The Bundy standoff is emblematic of the larger anti-government sentiment around the country that has been amplified with the creation of the tea party movement in 2009. But the latest move in a two-decade-long tug of war between Bundy and the federal government is bringing to light the delicate balance that has lasted between citizens in the West and the federal government over the use of federally owned land for generations.

Private rancher on public lands?

Bundy tends his 900 cattle grazing on taxpayer-owned land about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

To an East Coast dweller, the concept of public lands can be a foreign one, as people own or rent their plot of space in urban, suburban and commuter towns that crowd the Eastern Seaboard.

But out West, public lands are a big deal. Almost everyone uses them or depends on them. They are key to people’s recreational hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. And they are critical to people’s livelihood, as they are used to cut timber, drill oil, mine coal and ranch cattle.

Vast swaths of the land in the West are predominately public. In Nevada, for example, 87% of the state is owned by the federal government, and the BLM oversees 245 million acres of public lands mostly west of the Mississippi River, not including the lands overseen by the National Forest Service and half a dozen other federal agencies.

“Public lands are true assets of the U.S.,” said Bob Abbey, former director of the Bureau of Land Management.

How did Bundy ever get use of federal lands?

In Nevada, ranchers depend on the federal lands for their livelihood.

The government began allowing the use of the land in 1877 to promote the economic development of dry, difficult-to-cultivate desert areas. So it offered land for dirt cheap. Bundy says his family has owned the ranch since about the time the Desert Land Act passed.

A version of the law still exists today, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands for a nominal rate. The fee is cheaper than what the rancher would pay the state or a private land owner, but the tradeoff is that the rancher has to share the land with the public.

The history

This is not the first standoff between public land users and the government. The most famous one, the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s, pitted ranchers, loggers and miners against the federal government. They thought the Jimmy Carter administration was too heavy-handed in its regulatory and environmental policies.

Former Nevada state Sen. Dean Rhoads, who is also a rancher, led the negotiations with the federal government, which he said were peaceful and productive.

Ronald Reagan, Carter’s opponent in the 1980 presidential election, sided with the Sagebrush rebels, saying, “The next administration won’t treat the West as if it were not worthy of attention. The next administration will reflect the values and goals of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Indeed, we can turn the Sagebrush Rebellion into the Sagebrush Solution.”

Reagan was a former governor of California, where the federal government owns roughly half the state’s land

Since then, the BLM and the corresponding state agency have confiscated cattle from violators, but nothing escalated to the temperature of the Bundy Ranch situation.

The Bureau of Land Management

The BLM is a federal agency that operates predominantly in the West and is in charge of managing these lands. It must balance the desires of ranchers, environmentalists, recreationalists, and industrialists.

“I think a lot of people who live in the East don’t understand the BLM,” said Abbey, the former director.

John Griggs is manager of the 200,000-acre Maggie Creek Ranch in Elko, Nevada, a third of which uses public lands. He says he’s sympathetic to the BLM, citing its difficult job.

“A lot of times they don’t make anybody happy,” he said, because the bureau is responsible for managing lands for so many uses. “I think that folks on the ground at BLM are good folks trying to do the best they can.”

But this system unique to the United States brings conflict.

The environmentalists

The balance between conservation and public use is a major source of tension when overseeing government land.

The desert tortoise is a factor in the Bundy equation, and the rancher was ordered to remove his cattle from public lands in 1993 after the tortoise was placed on the protected species list. Bundy refused to comply, and he racked up more than $1 million in fines.

Brian O’Donnell, executive director at the Conservation Lands Foundation, called Bundy “one of the most selfish and irresponsible users of public land that I’ve ever witnessed.”

“The key tenet in public lands in America is they belong to all of us,” he said. When one person puts his “own selfish interest above everyone else’s, the whole system falls apart.”

Ranchers’ sentiment

The Bundy situation is a common topic of conversation in rural Nevada, a part of the country filled with libertarian sentiment distrustful of the government, Griggs said. And like his, he said people’s feelings are mixed.

While the ranch manager is sympathetic to the BLM’s mission, he said its tactics were the wrong approach. Griggs said he understands where Bundy is coming from, saying the BLM “put his back up against the wall.”

But Griggs also said that Bundy lost all efforts at appeal and that now he should follow the law.

“I think it’s a mess any way you slice it,” he said.

‘Welfare ranchers’

Because of the cheap rent, some, including fellow cattlemen who don’t ranch on public lands, call public land ranchers “welfare ranchers” and have no sympathy for the Western lot.

But Griggs said they don’t understand that ranching public land is “not a bargain.”

“On public lands, you might get kicked off at any moment for a turtle. That’s kind of the deal,” he said.

Rhoads, the former Nevada state senator, said 600 ranchers are currently paying their fees to the federal government for use of the land. He says that because of Bundy, people will “think that us in Nevada are getting away with not paying the government what it owes them.”

The politics

Unsurprisingly, Bundy has become a political symbol.

Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called him a “domestic terrorist.”

“These people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not,” he said in Las Vegas.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus told journalist John Ralston that Bundy is “not a folk hero,” Ralston tweeted, but said Reid shouldn’t call him a terrorist.

But libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky criticized the federal government’s response, saying it “shouldn’t violate the law, nor should we have 48 federal agencies carrying weapons and having SWAT teams.”

“Can everybody decide what the law is on their own? No, there has to be a legal process,” he said on WHAS radio in Louisville. “But I think there is definitely a philosophic debate over who should own the land.”

The future

The BLM might have lost the latest battle with Bundy, but it has other tools at its disposal, including arresting Bundy for failing to follow the law, seizing his assets through the Treasury Department or sending the case to the Department of Justice.

The agency has not yet said what its next course of action will be, but former BLM director Abbey said that it must prevail because of the precedent it would set. If Bundy gets away with illegally grazing on lands and not paying fines, it could encourage other ranchers to follow suit.

While Bundy is a source of contention, ranchers out West are watching the BLM’s next steps in the Bundy standoff, and they are worried about the BLM’s next major action: Conservationists are asking for protection for the sage grouse.

The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association says the BLM’s draft proposal includes “overly burdensome grazing requirements.” It would also reduce the number of grazing permits.


    • Washington,George

      Bundy has Prescriptive Rights. His family was there over a hundred years ago. The BLM thugs killed some of his cattle. So much for wanting to save a turtle,eh. They also left the area a mess.Harry Reid’s son has a deal with a Chinese solar company. Guess where that Chinese company wants a solar farm? People like you are the fools, and we have plenty in this country. Time to wake up, you could be next. BTW, people in this country are tired of our govt being against us and tired of wacko environmentalists. So be sure to pass the word to your looney friends,eh.

  • Jim

    Bundy may be a “crazy old coot”, that’s NOT for us to decide… BUT, the comment by Senate Majority Harry Reid, “he is a domestic terrorist,” AND “These people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not”,??? WELL, what about a pres. who stands in front on the muslum prayer curtain instead of the AMERICAN FLAG LIKE ALL OTHER PRESIDENTS BEFORE him?????????? NOW, WHO is patriotic and WHO IS NOT???

    • henry

      hell yeah to everything you said. amen. slowly but surely , our country is going to muslim belief. that is what their president oldbomber wants. America open your eyes before they choke us out!!!!!

  • Triple Aught

    “I think a lot of people who live in the East don’t understand the BLM,” said Abbey, the former director”

    “Maybe we do not understand much about range lands, but, Easterners do very well understand the Federal Gooberment continuously, and methodically destroying rights, most of which has taken place in less than 10 years!
    Patriot Act, Nullification Act), etc…
    *When they start putting American Citizens First,
    I’ll start calling them the US Government again).
    It was something I was once very proud of…

    This land was in this Mr. Bundy’s family in 1870.
    7 years before the Federal Gooberment claimed it back,
    After the Bundy Family paid for it. and built It.
    These people fought for this land and kept it,
    at least until now.
    I might add; this Country was made by men like Mr. Bundy…
    He Stood Up…!

    There is not one thing wrong with Capitalism, as long as it is,
    “Free Market Capitalism”, without corporations having their,”concubines”,visiting Washington DC,… regularly.

    When corporations and governments get married and crawl into bed together, it is defined as Fascism.

    Will Rogers said;
    I for one am glad we are not getting all the government we are paying for.

    George W. Bush said;
    The Constitution, The Constitution, It’s Nothing But A GD Piece Of Paper! Stop Throwing The Constitution In My Face.
    (this was at a Senate hearing on the wire tapping part of one of the,”Patriot Act hearings”, with only 68 members present, but some of them squawked!)…

    As the Gooberment becomes more aggressive toward it’s citizens, there will be more people like the Bundys.
    And sadly, more of these type of situations.

    People are weary of the shape America is in.
    And Tired of the Crooked Underhanded Politics of Greasing Palms to Prosper Enormously. This is not the fault of corporations, it is the fault of the crooked politicians who did nothing to stop it. They should not accept money from any corporation, for anything. including elections.
    Especially Elections…but instead, they just passed a bill to take the cap off of political contributions…

    During the Past 10 Presidential Administration’s direct and overstepping influence, the many hardships we all are now facing have materialized.
    And each Administration had/has a Congress.(Uh Huh, you know, the folks who always remind us that they make the laws)…

    Gooberment has grown into a Monster.
    I mean really, 48 Gun Wielding Agencies?
    Complete with pain beams and ear busters.
    Who For?
    To Use How…?

    Homeland Security alone has bought enough bullets to wage a 5 year war against the American Public.
    The IRS, SSA, USPS, and even the Weather Channel,(huh?), bought millions of rounds of different caliber ammunition.
    (This was all over the news).

    It’s almost like our Gooberment is trying to purposefully bring back the Militia Movement Attitude, and cause us to mess up…
    Either that, or maybe it is preparing for the day when we have finally had enough and Stand Up like Mr. Bundy did… a whole lot of people are voicing that option/opinion.

    Make no mistakes.
    This is not about Cows, Turtles or Sage Hens, it is very much about politicians losing Face, if they do not attack the Bundys, and do so in the name of the Gooberment, they will have lost Face,… Again.

    They will attack him, because they can beat him…
    Mr. Bundy is not near as dangerous as China, Syria, or Iran.
    I wish they would go after Kim Jung Un with such fervor.

    I have read that only 10 to 12 percent of citizens, (varies from poll to poll, but only negligibly), actually approve of this Congress.

    The other 88 to 90 percent Disapprove of the Rabid Raging Greedy Monster, we all have allowed to materialize.
    Gooberment keeps getting bigger and bigger.
    And it is ours to pay for. I never realized it would get this big, or the cost so high. Do we really want to live in Orwellian Times?
    My God, they are driving regular vehicles costing anywhere from $50,000 up to $250,000. Not mentioning the,”SWAT Crash Vehicles”.

    This same Gooberment, that is associated with a 17 Trillion Dollar debt, and this same Gooberment that you hear about shooting citizens 11 or 12 times for walking toward them, only seeking help after a car wreck.
    (Charlotte NC, 2013, Man was shot at 12 times and struck 11 times,… “Then”, told to get on the ground,(?).
    And also shoots a 77 year old man several times because he got his cane from his vehicle?

    The very same Gooberment that has your Doctor tee’d off at you.
    Is allowing Eastern Europe to slide backwards in time, (does anyone realize that Russia is, and has been mad because we put offensive bases in Turkey,… in 1960)? The same Gooberment that sends our jobs to,”where ever”, and to,”whomever”,is paying the cheapest wages. NAFTA and NWO folks.

    The same Gooberment that destroyed Mr. Bundy’s water tanks, fences, purposely and belligerently killed 2 of his prize livestock.
    Other livestock being killed outright, or died as a complication from this action.

    This Article asks,
    Why did Cliven Bundy fight.
    He didn’t fight.
    He just stood up and said No.

    This article paints a pretty crummy picture of Mr. Bundy……..
    (No Surprise There),

    Mr. Bundy Stood Up And Just Said No.

    Let those Stars and Stripes Wave On, Mr. Bundy!
    For as long as you possibly can!

    • dewey

      unfortunately, it reads like transcripts from Hannity…..lots of supposed facts there, but no proof of anything….again…any links to what you’re calling your truth, would be appreciated

  • Wilhelm Schauberger

    In Texas the BLM took 140 acres from a farmer and paid him ZERO! Then they assessed fees that the farmer couldn’t afford. He tried to sell his farm because he had the deed, but the BLM said it was there’s now and he lost everything. He was a law abiding American who paid his taxes but couldn’t pay his fees. He was too old to fight and didn’t get enough people to come to his aide in time. Mr. Bundy thankfully had a different out come.

  • Vasu Murti

    Abolish “welfare ranching”!

    Abolish all taxpayer support for the livestock industry.

    Vegan author John Robbins provides these points and facts in his Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987):

    Half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren’t subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

    Livestock producers are California’s biggest consumers of water. Every tax dollar the state doles out to livestock producers costs taxpayers over seven dollars in lost wages, higher living costs and reduced business income. Seventeen western states have enough water supplies to support economies and populations twice as large as the present.

    U.S. livestock produce twenty times as much excrement as the entire human population, creating sewage which is ten to several hundred times as concentrated as raw domestic sewage. Meat producers contribute to half the water pollution in the United States.

    Again: half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren’t subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

    If we abolish all taxpayer support for the livestock industry, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound, effectively making everyone in the United States a vegetarian. This would have far greater and far-reaching consequences than merely taxing meat, like the “sin taxes” we now see on cigarettes and alcohol.

    A 2007 pamphlet put out by Compassion Over Killing similarly points out:

    Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

    It takes nearly one gallon of fossil fuel and 5,200 gallons of water to produce just one pound of conventionally fed beef. (Mother Jones)

    In their 2007 book, Please Don’t Eat the Animals, mother and daughter Jennifer Horsman and Jaime Flowers write:

    “Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock. Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

    “The Worldwatch Institute estimates one pound of steak from a steer raised in a feedlot costs: five pounds of grain, a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 34 pounds of topsoil.

    “Thirty-three percent of our nation’s raw materials and fossil fuels go into livestock destined for slaughter. In a vegan economy, only two percent of our resources will go to the production of food.”

    • dewey

      If we abolish all taxpayer support for the livestock industry, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound, effectively making everyone in the United States a vegetarian. This would have far greater and far-reaching consequences than merely taxing meat, like the “sin taxes” we now see on cigarettes and alcohol.

      ……but, but, what about the free markets?? They tossed the baby out with the bath water on everything else…..kinda makes “supply-side economics” a moot point

  • mojorisin73

    Cliven Bundy is a hero to all of us Americans who are sick and tired of having the federal government pushing “We the People” around with their threats and laws that go against the very thing our founders stood for.

    • dewey

      Bundy is nothing more than a red state taker…..end farm subsidies now and clean up a program that accounts for more than 60% of what the USDA pays out

  • samiam

    I say lets close all the borders, lock them down. Bring all our troops home, and close all overseas military bases. Next lets cut off all free handouts to foreign countries, no more of our tax payers hard earned money going anywhere but being spent on the people who live and are citizens of this country, The United States Of America. Lets get rid of anyone in this country who is not a citizen of this country. Lets clean house in Washington, lets get rid of every political crooks who claims to be a congressman or senator of the people, not one who is using the people and government for THEIR OWN POLITICAL GAIN! Getting fat off of the rest of us. When a senator or congressman leaves office their money stays in Washington the draw SS just like the rest of us. Lets get rid of Air force 1,2,3, lets get rid of Marine, 1,2,3. If the president wants to go somewhere let him pay for the flight he gets paid enough, Lets take back our country from the crooks in Washington who think they don’t need us. This is our country America, lets take it back.

    • dewey

      Lets get rid of Air force 1,2,3, lets get rid of Marine, 1,2,3. If the president wants to go somewhere let him pay for the flight he gets paid enough, Lets take back our country from the crooks in Washington who think they don’t need us. This is our country America, lets take it back.

      …..where was all of this at when the constitution was being suspended, oh yeah, you had been violated so you were willing to give up everything to feel safe again. Also, why is this prez so scrutinized about travel when W was always gone from Washington, when his cronies were flying around the country spreading the lie that Iraq had WMD’s….or when they peddled falsified intelligence to sell an attack to our “allies”….who took your country, it’s mine too, I even volunteered my services during the first Gulf War. You lost your country in 2000, and after that debacle, nothing will ever be the same again

  • rembrandt

    The lord giveth and the government taketh away. I’m ashamed of our government especially the commander in thief.

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