A bunker mentality

Who is this Cliven Bundy and why are ‘patriots' lining up behind him?

Although no shots were fired, some pundits are calling the recent standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy “The Battle of Bunkerville” after a town near the confrontation.

On April 5, federal agents and hired cowboys began rounding up Bundy’s cattle. According to the BLM, Bundy owes more than $1 million in back grazing fees and fines going back to 1993.

The 68-year-old rancher has refused to pay the fees—which he puts at $300,000—because his Mormon family settled in the area in 1877, which predates the creation of the BLM (though it followed both the birth of the state and the Emancipation Proclamation). He contends that the land is his and that the agency and the federal government have no authority over him. Bundy has tested his claim in numerous court cases and has lost every one.

So, after 20 years of discussion, the BLM issued a notice it would impound Bundy’s cattle and proceeded to do so. Many of Bundy’s large family—he has about 70 children and grandchildren—and supporters gathered at his ranch near Bunkerville to resist the roundup.

Over the next few days, some family members were roughed up in skirmishes with federal agents. On April 9, one of them was tasered after he kicked a police dog. The incident was captured on video which went viral after being posted on the internet.

A protest camp was formed the next day and right-wing militiamen and Tea Party activists flooded in by the hundreds, many of them armed and dressed in combat gear.

“It’s not about cows,” said Bundy relative Jack Faught. “It’s about the freedom to make our own choices close to home.”

One protestor told Fox News his militia group was planning to put women in the front lines if violence broke out, a plan he later attributed to the women. By some accounts as many as a thousand protestors left the designated “Free Speech” areas and advanced on the BLM encampment.

On April 12, the BLM blinked.

“Based on conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement.

The announcement came just one week before the 21st anniversary of the federal assault that ended the 51-day standoff between followers of the Branch Davidians and authorities in Waco, Texas, that resulted in 76 fatalities.

Conditions continued to deteriorate as protesters blocked off a portion of Interstate 15 and closed in on the corral where 400 of Bundy’s 900 cattle were being held. The confrontation was diffused when the BLM released the cattle and withdrew its personnel.

However, the BLM said it was not through with Bundy, promising it would seek a solution “administratively and judicially” and intended to pursue court action.

An obscure Nevada rancher until now, Bundy suddenly became the darling of right wing groups and conservative commentators nation wide.

“My statement to the American people: I’ll do whatever it takes to gain our liberties and freedom back,” Bundy told conservative television host Sean Hannity during the standoff.

Bundy declared victory over the BLM and called on county sheriffs across the country to disarm federal bureaucrats. But if it was a victory remains to be seen. Some see the incident as having very dangerous implications in the growing anti-government movement among right wing extremists.

The Sagebrush Rebellion

The federal government owns a substantial amount of land in 13 Western states. More than 80 percent of Nevada belongs to the government so most ranchers’ cattle graze on public land.

In exchange for grazing permits, ranchers pay a nominal fee per year per animal. The vast majority of ranchers comply with these grazing rules, which are enforced by the BLM.

The Sagebrush Rebellion began in the 1970s as a reaction to the growing environmental movement which caused federal agencies to begin a national wilderness assessment. The rebels believed that the land should be returned to the states for grazing, mining and other resource extraction activities.

They were initially supported by then candidate Ronald Reagan who declared himself a rebel. Conservative congressmen introduced legislation to return public land to the states but these went nowhere.

The rebellion simmered throughout the next few decades with occasional flare ups when a rancher would refuse to pay grazing fees and even one incident when a fertilizer bomb was planted near a federal building in Carson City.

However, these flare ups were regarded by most of the nation as local disputes between ranchers and the government and never galvanized public opinion to any great degree.

In an interview with Christian Science Monitor, Stanford history professor Richard White said this latest confrontation is somewhat surprising.

“A lot of this is decades old,” White said. “What I think this did is spark into these kind of tea party property-right issues, which are new. That’s where you’ve got all the people showing up. It’s a very old issue that suddenly tapped into a new clientele and got an explosion. … This is a brand new 21st century issue.”

One thing Bundy’s supporters and the BLM agree on is that this isn’t over.

Almost all of Bundy’s supporters have gone home, about 40 armed militia members remain, saying they will keep a permanent watch until Bundy asks them to leave.

There is a recent post on the Bundy Ranch website by an organization calling itself Operation Mutual Aid, a self-described group of militia men, freedom fighters and patriots. Its stated purpose is:

“Defense of public and private property, lives and liberty to exercise God-given rights, seen plainly in the laws of Nature, and codified in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, at the request of such parties in need of such defense, and the documentation and archiving of all defensive action taken by the coalition for accurate and prompt reporting to all concerned public venues and media.”

Where do they intend to carry out this purpose?

“Defensive posture shall be taken up in the optimal tactical position in relation to the people or property in need of such defense. All local laws not in violation of the U.S. and subject States Constitution shall be observed. All laws in violation of the U.S. and subject States Constitution are hereby considered null and void, the enforcement of which most likely represents the need for such defense as herein outlined.”

The statement calls for a Quick Reaction Force to take up a defensive posture in the shortest possible amount of time at their determined location with the minimum force size to be determined by the leadership of the coalition.

The coalition reasons that, as the government derives its authority from the people, if it should use that power against the people, it is the people’s responsibility to defend the country against the government.

But even some conservatives aren’t buying that argument. In an interview with Bundy, right wing broadcaster Glenn Beck, while expressing sympathy for Bundy’s position, said he took exception to many of the ranchers’ supporters whom he characterized as violent fringe types spoiling for a fight.

The Law and Cliven Bundy

The reason so much of the West is federally owned goes back to the nation’s early expansion. Congress passed the Morrell Act in 1862, which granted 40-acre parcels to homesteaders who could make a living on the parcels for a period of time. However, much of the land was too wild for homesteading so there were few takers.

By the turn of the century, the government still held large tracts of western land that no one seemed to want. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover proposed deeding the land back to the states, but the states didn’t want them, in part, because they were overgrazed, so the BLM was created to manage the land.

Bundy’s claim that the BLM has usurped Nevada sovereignty did not hold up in court and neither did his claim of inherited ancestral rights to the land that allegedly pre-empt BLM authority.

Bundy says he would gladly pay grazing fees to the state or county but refuses to “recognize the United States government as even existing.”

However, his position contradicts Article 1, Section 2 of the Nevada Constitution which states in part “the Paramount allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The article goes on to acknowledge that the government has the authority to use force against states or citizens who would forcibly resist execution of federal laws. Bundy and his supporters dispute this, but the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association while sympathetic to Bundy, said he has gone too far.

“In accordance with the rule of law, we must use the system set forth in our Constitution to change those laws and regulations,” the NCA said in a press release. “Nevada Cattlemen’s Association does not condone actions that are outside the law in which citizens take the law into their own hands.”

Although the Bundy standoff gave a strong visual context to the anti-federal movement, other forces are at work in state legislatures across the country. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been pushing legislation for decades in several states that would release public lands for private use that would include resource extraction.

ALEC is funded by private corporations such as Peabody Energy, Duke Energy and American Electric Power, and others including the Koch brothers. ALEC’s legislative agenda includes stand-your-ground and voter registration bills that passed at the state level often verbatim.

On April 16, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., went to the U.S. Department of the Interior asking for an investigation into ALEC’s efforts to pass bills at the state level that undermine federal authority over state lands and thwart the agency’s duties.

“ALEC’s pattern of activity raises serious questions about how changes to land management laws and regulations, especially in the Western United States, are being pushed by ALEC without public disclosure of its role or that of the corporations that fund its legislative agenda,” Grijalva wrote.

According to Grijalva, the consequences of ALEC’s positions are severe and deserving of careful scrutiny and are “entirely consistent with the position taken by anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters.”

In 2013, Bundy spoke before a Nevada legislative committee in favor of AB 227, an ALEC-inspired bill that would transfer federal land to the state.

ALEC is not a registered lobbying group. It also enjoys non-profit status. Grijalva wants the Interior Department to team up with the IRS to determine whether ALEC is violating lobbying and disclosure regulations.

The Dann Sisters

Bundy may feel he has ancestral grazing rights, but his claim only goes back to 1870—at least six years after Nevada became a state. The Western Shoshone claim to most of Nevada goes back for millennia.

In 1863, the Western Shoshone signed the Ruby Valley Treaty with the United States, which guaranteed safe passage of goods and people through Shoshone land. The Western Shoshone contend safe passage was all they offered, but in the end the federal government took most of their 40,000 acres.

In a case that has been to the U.S Supreme Court and back, the Shoshone claims were deemed to have been forfeited through “gradual encroachment.” In 1979, the Indian Claims Commission awarded a $26 million land claim settlement to the Western Shoshone. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that the Shoshone land claims were extinguished by the financial settlement.

Eighty percent of the Shoshone refused to accept the money, which sat in an account drawing interest for decades. Shoshone elders Mary and Carrie Dann refused to pay grazing fees in 1973 beginning a series of clashes with the BLM that ultimately resulted in a roundup similar to that in Bunkerville.

After the first roundup, a group of Dann supporters formed the Western Shoshone Defense Project to mount a vigil over the Dann ranch in remote Crescent Valley.

Unlike Bundy’s supporters, WSDP volunteers were unarmed and not numerous. Their showdown with the BLM resulted in the arrest of family member Clifford Dann who, while pouring gasoline over himself as a first step toward self-immolation, accidentally splashed on a federal official. He was convicted of assault and sent to prison.

Dissidents formed the Western Shoshone National Council, which issued its own passports. U.S. officials refused to recognize them. Council members would cross the border into Canada in order to travel under their own passport.

The Dann sisters used the procedure to appear before various international justice organizations and to accept awards for their work. A United Nations committee condemned the United States for its breach of the Ruby Valley Treaty.

In order to resolve the dispute, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., pushed for a tribal referendum on whether to disperse the settlement money which had grown to more than $160 million. This passed, though some challenged the legitimacy of the vote, and the money was divided up among all the Western Shoshone. It amounted to about $20,000 per person.

Conspiracy Theories

In 1993 the BLM set aside most of the land around Bunkerville as a preserve for the endangered Mojave desert tortoise. The BLM cut back on grazing permits and most of the local ranchers moved away. Bundy, however, remained and stopped paying his grazing fees.

Conspiracy theorists question the timing of the roundup, which began as Reid’s former aide Neil Kornze was confirmed as the new head of the BLM. Some say desert tortoise and grazing fees have nothing to do with the roundup and the purpose was to clear the way for fracking permits, but those were issued in Elko County, hundreds of miles from the Bundy ranch.

Others say the area is destined to become a massive solar energy farm. Rory Reid, the senator’s eldest son, is involved in an effort by a Chinese ENN Energy Group, to build a $5 billion solar farm and panel manufacturing plant in the southern Nevada desert.

A Clark County Commissioner when the project was approved, Rory Reid later went on to become ENN’s primary representative. While that may pose ethical questions for the senator, the project was scrapped and in any case wasn’t going to be built anywhere near Bunkerville.

Environmentalists question why the BLM didn’t act sooner to resolve the dispute with Bundy on behalf of the desert tortoise. But officials are closing down the tortoise program because of budget constraints and have euthanized half of them and are moving the rest elsewhere.

Most commentators on both sides of the issue agree that the BLM roundup was ill conceived and overreaching, particularly when there where judicial remedies readily available. And both sides also agree that despite the BLM’s pullback, and Bundy’s sudden fall as a conservative star with his ignorant, racist comments about African-Americans, that little corner of Nevada, Bunkerville, has not yet put this issue behind it.