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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A week after I met with Bundy, members of his clan, led by his son Ryan, drove six hours east to the town of Blanding, in the canyonlands of southern Utah, to attend an anti-BLM rally. Armed and hostile, Ryan and his contingent joined at least 250 people gathered in the town square, most of them Blanding residents. Blond schoolgirls with wide smiles handed out pocket-size copies of the Constitution, which the protesters kept, à la Cliven, in the breast pockets of their shirts.

The organizer of the event, a county commissioner named Phil Lyman, told the crowd about the tyrannical behavior of the BLM: In 2007, rangers had closed portions of nearby Recapture Canyon to motorized traffic. The BLM had determined that the unrestricted use of all-terrain vehicles and jeeps in Recapture had resulted in the trampling of “a rich archaeological record of the Ancestral Puebloans” who lived in the canyon 1,000 years ago.

Access to the canyon wasn’t the issue, as Lyman admitted. There were thousands of miles of canyon trails around Blanding that were open to off-road vehicles. Rather, Recapture Canyon was a symbol of oppression, and now, seven years after its closure, San Juan County needed to act. “This protest is not about Recapture, or about ATVs,” Lyman had written on his Facebook page; “it is about the jurisdictional creep of the federal government.”

Lyman’s original plan was for the citizens to ride their A.T.V.’s en masse into the closed canyon. But now he hesitated, and suggested that the protesters should enter the canyon but only motor to the boundary of the closure. He worried that the action was “looking like conflict for the sake of conflict.”

The Bundyites revolted. A woman shouted, “The BLM ruins the land!” There were denunciations of “the BLM police state” and comparisons to the Gestapo. There was talk of revolution. “You’ve got guns, too. By God, that’s what they’re for!” a man cried out. Ryan Bundy, imperious in his black cowboy hat, his Constitution poking out from his plaid shirt pocket, took the microphone and set matters straight. “I came here to open a road,” he said, with a glance at Lyman. “And if we aren’t going to do that, I’m going to get in my truck and go home. If we’re going to talk about public land, it’s not the public of the United States, it belongs to the public of San Juan County.”

1In September, the federal government filed misdemeanor charges against five of the riders, including Lyman. Ryan Bundy was not charged.

The crowd roared, and the protesters rushed to their waiting A.T.V.’s and jeeps. They drove in a column to the mouth of Recapture Canyon, where they descended into the gorge, their engines grinding and whining, the air filling with dust. Ryan Bundy rode his A.T.V. with his dazed toddler son on the seat in front of him. He saluted as he crossed the closure boundary, while a crowd stood by waving American flags. They repeated the phrase “Thank you, sir!” to each passing rider, some of whom cradled assault rifles. The only law enforcement on hand were some local sheriff’s deputies. I asked one of the deputies whether he or his fellow lawmen had done anything to stop the incursion. He laughed and said it wasn’t their job, it was the BLM’s. I asked whether he’d seen BLM officers. “Not one,” he said. “Complete no-show.”1

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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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