Armed right-wing militia members are flocking to Clark County, Nevada, in response to appeals for help from 67-year-old cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in his dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Earlier this week BLM agents armed for their own defense began rounding up Bundy’s cattle, which have been trespassing on BLM land for many years because of Bundy’s refusal to recognize and comply with the laws governing the management of our public lands. Bundy family members and supporters have confronted BLM rangers, so defined areas for protestors have been set up to try and ensure the safety of everybody involved.
Bundy continues to issue inflammatory statements and the anti-government types are working themselves into a good lather. But a closer examination of the situation shows that Bundy is full of what comes out the rear ends cattle.
Bundy claims that his family has “preemptive rights” to the public land he uses because they’ve been grazing cattle on it since the late 1800s. He says the real trespassers aren’t his cattle, but the BLM because the land really belongs to the “sovereign” state of Nevada and Clark County. But according to U.S. history and law, the federal government was the original owner of all land, except for the lands given to the states for the purpose of supporting public schools, a practice established by the Land Ordinance of 1785. People could, of course, purchase land from the federal government, or obtain it through the Homestead Acts. But the land upon which Bundy claims he has preemptive rights has always been federal land. The federal government, of course, first had to extinguish the claims of local Native Americans, so if anybody has a valid prior claim to the land in dispute, it’s the local Paiute tribe.
Bundy’s belief in his right to have unrestricted use of public land is derived from his Mormon heritage. In 1847 pioneer members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) established Salt Lake City in nearby Utah in order to escape religious persecution in the eastern U.S. The Salt Lake Valley was officially part of Mexico at the time, but the Mexican-American War had started the year before and U.S. forces had already conquered the Mexican provinces of New Mexico and California.
The war ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which made Utah and neighboring areas officially part of the U.S. In 1849 Mormon leader Brigham Young expressed his desire for the Mormon settlements in the West to become part of a new U.S. state by unilaterally declaring the State of Deseret. Its boundaries included a lot of territory, including most of the state of Nevada, because he was sending Mormon settlers out from Salt Lake City into the surrounding wilderness. However, when Congress officially created the Utah Territory in 1850, it covered a smaller area, although it still included Nevada. A lot more areas were removed from the Utah Territory by Congress, including Nevada, before Utah became a state in 1896.
Ultra-conservative Mormons, like Bundy, believe their ancestors received a preemptive right from God to use all the lands in original State of Deseret, which was supposed to become their new Zion. But even though Bundy believes that the federal government has oppressed him, it hasn’t stopped him from invoking the U.S. Constitution in his defense. He likes to cite the odd teachings of the late Mormon “constitutional scholar” W. Cleon Skousen – another kook.
The reality is that the BLM’s administration of livestock grazing on public lands was originally authorized by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. This law was promoted by ranchers who understood that public rangelands needed to be regulated in order to prevent overgrazing. It divided Western public lands into separate grazing allotments and grazing permits were issued giving individual local ranchers the privilege of grazing those allotments using best management practices. There are numerous subsequent court decisions confirming the BLM’s regulatory authority, including the fact that grazing permits are not private property or a right of any kind – but a revocable privilege to be managed by the agency in the public’s interest.
Bundy has refused to comply with BLM range management laws, including ignoring the Endangered Species Act and refusing to pay the annual grazing fee that public lands ranchers must pay to graze their animals. Because of political pressure from ranching interests, the grazing fee is set at the below-market rate of just $1.35 per head per month. Bundy has refused to pay the fee since 1993 and he admits the unpaid total is about $300,000, while the BLM claims he owes the taxpayers about $1.1 million. The BLM finally revoked his grazing permit in 1998 and ordered his cattle off the land. After some protracted legal wrangling, a judge recently authorized the impoundment of his herd.
Bundy has labeled his dispute with the BLM a “range war” and compared it to the deadly confrontations with federal officials that occurred in the past at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. But despite his attempts to paint the BLM agents rounding up his trespassing cattle as outlaws, it’s clear to anyone willing to consider the facts that he’s the one who’s been ignoring the law. It would be unfortunate if the volatile and dangerous situation he’s created leads to bloodshed.
On February 10, 2016, Cliven Bundy was finally arrested by the FBI at the Portland International Airport while he was on his way to support the Malheur Standoff in Oregon. He is currently in federal custody awaiting trial.
On November 6, 2016, Arizona’s Mohave County Board of Supervisors voted to name a stretch of road after LaVoy Finicum, a Bundy supporter who was shot by police after pulling a gun on them when they tried to arrest him for participating in the unlawful seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
On January 8, 2018, Federal District Court Judge Gloria M. Navarro dismissed the charges against Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon and Ryan. Judge Navarro said federal prosecutors had withheld evidence in the ranch standoff that might have helped the defendants . Prosecutors explained in their court filings that fears of violence against government witnesses were part of the reason they chose not to release everything. The Bundys were subsequently set free without any determination of their guilt, and Cliven Bundy’s cattle continue to graze on public land illegally.
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