By Vernon Robison
Last week the Bundy Ranch near Bunkerville experienced a real Old West showdown. It had all of the important elements: an underdog cowboy, hired guns, the threat of cattle rustling ruffians and even a sheriff that rode in at the last minute restoring order and saving the day.
All joking aside, conditions at the ranch last week were rapidly turning into a very explosive situation. This isn’t a simple dispute over cattle. It isn’t really about range rights at all. It’s not really even about preserving the desert landscape for endangered species. Rather it is yet another chapter in the ongoing struggle between the enviro-wilderness lobby and the rights of the general American public to access public lands. It is a war of clashing ideas and values; a war of principles. And history shows that those are the most dangerous kinds of conflicts.
Cliven Bundy is, pretty much, the last of a dying breed of ranchers left standing in southern Nevada. All the others are long gone. Back in the early 1990s, when the desert tortoise became an issue, all the other ranchers were offered good cash money if they’d fold up their ranching operations and go home. They took it. But Bundy, who received the same offer, refused to sell.
Government officials retired his rights anyway. But the old rancher still believed that the rights his grandfather claimed way back in 1877 when first riding his horse onto the land was beyond the scope of federal jurisdiction. So he just continued exercising those rights and continued ranching on the land. In 1998, the federal government finally took Bundy to the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas and won. Bundy then appealed to the 9th Circuit but the prior decision was upheld. At that point, Bundy was most likely exhausted. He finally left it to the State of Nevada to assert its sovereignty in the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. This never happened.
All that was nearly fifteen years ago. So according to the courts, Bundy has been in trespass with his cattle ever since then. Nevertheless, he has stubbornly just gone on with his ranching operation anyway. Bundy’s cows have been out there on the range all that time, commingling in peace with the tortoise and other ecologically sensitive species. And until recently, no one has done much about it.
Over the past year or so, though the BLM has suddenly ratcheted up the pressure on Mr. Bundy and his cattle. They have sent him a barrage of threatening notices trying to get him to stop his unauthorized ranching. Finally, last week they upped the ante. The BLM hired some contract cowboys to round up all of the Bundy cattle and remove them from the area. That was supposed to happen on Wednesday.
But Bundy would not be intimidated. Convinced that his cause was right he called for support from the public, from the media and from local elected officials. He boldly stated that he would hold local and state law enforcement authorities accountable for any damage to livestock and property that may occur. More importantly Bundy vowed to do “whatever is necessary” to protect his rights and his property. It was clear to all that this was not just an idle threat. Bundy apparently fully meant what he said. Not wanting to see a livestock dispute turn to bloodshed, BLM officials backed down. They were right to do so and they should be commended for the wisdom of this decision.
Interestingly, the BLM was immediately attacked by environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity for not carrying out this ill-fated operation. They immediately announced that they would be filing a lawsuit against the federal government in the matter. They seemed to be saying that the BLM should have stopped Bundy from ranching, whatever the cost. In short, they wanted blood!
This radical enviro reaction seems to cut to the very heart of the matter and reveals what all the bruhaha is truly about. For fifteen years, the federal government has basically looked the other way while Bundy has run his cattle on the land. Why, all of a sudden, over the past year has this become such an urgent matter? There has not been documentation of an onslaught of the tortoise population due to cattle trampling. There is no evidence that Bundy cows are committing any new serious environmental violations in the past year that might be different from the past 135 years of peaceful coexistence on the land with the tortoise. So what is new?
The only thing new on the scene is the proposal by federal land managers, over the past couple of years, that the Gold Butte Complex is “one of America’s special places that deserves special protection”. That proposal has come in the form of a recommendation to Congress to designate Gold Butte as a new National Conservation Area with huge tracts of new wilderness area. Simply put, it is the desperately sought agenda of these same national enviro-wilderness groups. They want wilderness and you just can’t have Ol’ Man Bundy’s cows wandering around out there messing that up.
We will leave it to our readers to form an opinion on whether Cliven Bundy is right in his actions, and whether or not he has a solid legal leg to stand on. Perhaps he is justified in standing up for his life, liberty and property at all cost. Or perhaps he should be censured for defying the American justice system. In any case, Bundy in many ways represents the goat sent out into the wilderness to atone for a public who still believes in maintaining access to its public lands. He is the last holdout and the final substantive obstacle to the nonsensical enviro-wilderness agenda.
Make no mistake, Bundy’s battle is not about cattle grazing. It is not about the tortoise or the buckwheat or bearpoppy or any other endangered species. His battle is about the Gold Butte NCA with wilderness. And in that respect alone, he shares his battle with the general public of northeast Clark County.