Letter from Nevada — From the February 2015 issue

The Great Republican Land Heist

Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West

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Cliven Bundy, the notorious scofflaw cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nevada, was taking his midday nap when I arrived at his spread. One of his daughters — he has fourteen grown children, and they all seemed to have mustered at the ranch — told me that the nap was “very important” and our two o’clock appointment for an interview would have to wait for “whenever he wakes up.” I passed the time in the shade of the trees in his yard and talked with his militiamen, who looked miserable in the heat. They were awaiting an ambush by agents of the federal government, whose most oppressive arm, they assured me, was the Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior. From across the country the militia had come to “make war” on the BLM, which manages more public land than any other federal agency.

Cliven Bundy on his ranch. Photograph by Chad Ress

Cliven Bundy on his ranch. Photograph by Chad Ress

In April 2014, three weeks before my visit, the BLM had begun to impound Bundy’s herd, which had been illegally grazing on a 578,724-acre parcel of public land in the Mojave Desert known as the Bunkerville Allotment of the Gold Butte range. The BLM planned to sell the herd in order to reimburse the public for an estimated $1.1 million in grazing fees and fines that Bundy owed. Bundy, decrying federal tyranny and vowing to do whatever it took to protect his rights to graze his cattle, called in the press to witness the start of a “range war” on Gold Butte. On April 9, a few days after the roundup began, one of Bundy’s sons was shocked with a taser after he attacked a BLM officer. Video of the conflict was posted on YouTube and became a right-wing cause célèbre. Fox News showed Bundy parading in his white hat, on his white horse, carrying an American flag that billowed in the Nevada wind. At least a hundred men and women converged on Bundy’s ranch, anticipating the next Waco. They brought with them semiautomatic handguns, large-bore revolvers, assault rifles, and don’t tread on me flags.

People began calling the BLM with death threats. Bundy supporters tweeted the home address of a former U.S. Forest Service biologist now working for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that monitors conditions on Gold Butte, and threatened his family. The FBI told him to leave his house. BLM managers who had no law-enforcement training — biologists, ecologists, rangeland conservationists — took to carrying pistols as personal protection for the first time in their careers. Employees in the field were warned to pair up and to go nowhere on Gold Butte without alerting their superiors.

On April 12, a crowd numbering in the hundreds shut down Interstate 15 in both directions. Snipers from Bundy’s militia took positions in the thorny scrub along the highway. A group of Bundyites on horseback rode down a hillside to face the BLM rangers. There were fingers on triggers on both sides. “If a car had backfired,” a militiaman told me, “the shooting would have started.”

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

The standoff ended, however, without bloodshed. On the morning of April 13, the BLM announced that the removal of the herd would immediately cease, owing to “threats to public safety.” It was another defeat for the federal government in a conflict with Bundy that has lasted more than twenty years. In 1993, the BLM took the modest step — to Bundy an unconscionable one — of modifying his grazing permit to reduce the overstocking of Gold Butte, citing the damage his cows were causing to the fragile habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. Bundy refused the permit modification, quit paying his fees, and, in an act of pique, turned out more than nine hundred animals onto the allotment — almost nine times the number stipulated by his permit. The BLM did not intervene, though it did cite him for trespassing and noted, in a series of environmental studies, that the overstocked cattle, which had filled the riparian areas with dung and urine and gorged on what little grass was available, were wreaking ecological havoc.

In 1994, the agency ordered, with the decorum of administrative process, that Bundy remove the cows. One of his sons tore up the notification in front of the BLM officers who delivered it to the ranch. Bundy then attempted, absurdly, to pay his grazing fees to Clark County, which could not accept the money, since it had no jurisdiction over federal land. In 1995, the BLM again ordered Bundy to remove his cattle. Bundy again said he would not, and the BLM again delayed further action. The courts weighed in. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Nevada, which in 1998 found in favor of the government, a decision upheld by a federal appellate court a year later.

There the matter remained for another decade, the trespassing cattle roaming and ranging, the land and tortoise habitat “beaten to shit,” in the words of a local biologist. The case languished in the Department of Interior until 2008, when the Board of Land Appeals affirmed the cancellation of Bundy’s permit. Bundy countered with a letter that asserted his rights to public land and demanded state and county law enforcement “perform their Constitutional duties.” He concluded with a proclamation: “In the name of Jesus Christ I stand immoveable for Liberty.” The BLM pondered the situation for another three years, while Bundy’s cattle wandered onto adjacent lands that were managed by the National Park Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife. In 2011, the BLM issued a cease-and-desist order along with a notice of intent to eject the offending cows. The agency waited another year before directing its Nevada employees to prepare for a roundup. In July 2013, the district court ordered Bundy to remove his cattle within forty-five days. Bundy told local newspapers that he didn’t recognize the court’s jurisdiction. Another nine months passed before the BLM got up the courage to impound his herd.

[*] Correction: The U.S. Constitution states that Washington, D.C., should be limited to one hundred square miles, not ten.

When Bundy awoke from his nap, I was listening to his grandson pluck a guitar. The patriarch emerged sleepy and soft-spoken, childlike, wearing his white Stetson, thick-heeled boots, and a blue-check button-down shirt tucked neatly into jeans that were held up with a big brass buckle. He offered me a plate of Bundy beef. A cowboy bodyguard, with a pistol at his hip, hovered nearby as Bundy and I talked under the shade trees. I asked him to justify his claims to the Gold Butte allotment. He told me that the U.S. Constitution — a copy of which he kept in the breast pocket of his shirt, over his heart — held all the justification he needed. Under the Constitution, he said, there could be no such thing as federal public lands. Given this fact, the states, or better yet the counties, should control the land currently claimed by the U.S. government, and the entire federally managed commons should be abolished. He patted his breast and referred me to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, which, he said, limits the amount of land that the federal government can own to ten square miles. (It does no such thing, though it does establish that Washington, D.C., should be limited to ten square miles.)[*] Bundy went on citing the sacred document for the next thirty minutes, earnest and impassioned, as I tried and failed to interrupt. Then, yawning and adjusting his big hat, he excused himself to go inside the house. I waited, lounging in a lawn chair, expecting that he might want to talk some more.

A view of the Virgin River from lands managed by the BLM, near the Bundy ranch.

A view of the Virgin River from lands managed by the BLM, near the Bundy ranch.

I had planned to ask Bundy why he was complaining about a government that had been so patient with his shenanigans, one that subsidized ranchers like him with enormous largesse. This was a government, I wanted to remind him, that had set the federal grazing fee at $1.35 a month per cow-calf pair when the market rate on private land averaged $11.90, and it was spending at least $500 million annually in direct and indirect subsidies for public-lands ranchers. (In an essay for this magazine that was published in 1986, Edward Abbey called Western cattlemen “welfare parasites.”)

While I waited for Bundy to reappear, I watched another of his grandsons rope a dummy bull for rodeo practice. Finally, after half an hour, the bodyguard stood over me and grimaced, his hand on his holstered gun. “All right, that’s it, time to go.” I hesitated; the bodyguard shook his head. “I think he’s gone back to sleep,” he said. “The man needs his naps.”

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and a fellow at the American Independent Institute. His article “Razing Arizona” appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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