In case you weren’t aware, and you surely weren’t unless you are a Nevadan or an avid watcher/listener of conservative media outlets, there is a battle brewing in Nevada over the grazing rights of Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy. I stumbled across an editorial about it in the New York Times. As you might imagine, Timothy Egan of the Times made the guy out to be some sort of deadbeat who was unwilling to pay what was legally due to the federal government for him having grazed his cattle on Bureau of Land Management acreage. The controversy is far more complicated than that. It began with a tortoise. In 1989, no less.
Way back then, the EPA designated a desert tortoise in the area as endangered, which was downgraded to threatened a year later.
By 1993, the BLM developed a plan to save the desert tortoise that included prohibiting grazing on vast tracts of land it nominally owns in Nevada. It sought to purchase grazing permits it had previously issued to ranchers. Cliven Bundy, among others, refused to sell. He racked up about $31,000 in fines for grazing cattle without permission after his permit was revoked. He never reapplied for a permit, but continued to graze his cattle.
Shortly after the designation of the desert tortoise as endangered, over thirty counties in the state of New Mexico moved to legislatively gain ownership to land the federal government claimed. Nye County in Nevada, with a land area comprising almost 17% of the state, followed suit. Clive Bundy is not alone in his fight against the Feds. This is, in fact, just the latest iteration of a long-simmering feud between the Federal government and the state and local governments representing the people out West. The locals say the Feds try to oppressively control things from the Washington without really knowing what they’re doing, while the Feds say it is their prerogative to protect and manage land it acquired in the nation’s push westward. The federal government is far and away the largest landowner in the Rocky Mountain states, owning 87% of the land in Nevada alone.
By 1996, Federal courts were striking down local legislation refusing to recognize their claims of ownership. The ranchers were not dissuaded. Cliven Bundy said his family’s claim to the grazing rights preceded the claims of the Federal government. Nevada was a part of the Utah Territory won in the Mexican-American war in 1848. Cliven Bundy’s family homesteaded their ranch in 1877, well after Nevada’s silver rush led it to break away from Utah and become its own territory before being admitted to the Union in 1864 as the 36th state.
There is a principle in real estate law, simply stated, that first in time is first in right. By that reckoning, it at least superficially appears Cliven Bundy’s claims to the land fail. But it’s not clear when the Federal government asserted its claim to the land upon which Bundy grazes his herd. But Bundy had been, until at least 1989, acknowledging the Federal government’s claims by paying the permit fees for grazing. As such, it did not appear Bundy had a good legal case, which is how the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco saw things in 1998, issuing an injunction ordering him to remove his cattle.
Nothing much happened for over a decade afterwards. Bundy kept grazing his cattle. Then in 2012, the BLM filed for an injunction in Federal court against Bundy, and two years later, in March, 2014, moved to remove Bundy’s cattle from the land and impound the herd to pay for his fees and penalties, which by then exceeded one million dollars.
Bundy refused to let the impoundment peacefully proceed, becoming something of a cause celebre among the militias and anti-government types commonly found in the West. They rapidly descended on the aptly named Bunkerville, Nevada, where Bundy was holed up with his family, to aid in preventing the impoundment of Bundy’s cattle. Bundy’s legal case had actually vastly improved since 1998, as whatever the government’s rights might have been, they sat on them for over ten years while Bundy openly allowed his cattle to graze on their land. Thus he would meet at least two criteria necessary for making a claim of adverse possession—open possession which is flagrantly hostile to the owner’s interests. And for now, the Feds have backed down, calling off their impoundment operation under the threat of violence by the small army now gathered to protect Bundy’s cattle.
This case might seem something of a run of the mill Branch Davidian type dispute, where a bunch of cultists have sequestered themselves against the world and are ready to fight to the death anyone who tries to intrude. But this is not like that. Bundy has the support of local, and even state politicians, even if the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association has decided to keep its opinions to itself. Bundy is no kook, but is a family man trying to protect rights he feels are his, his family having exercised them for over a century, and he has the support of a good many of his neighbors.
There is a backlash building. The usurpations and predations of the US Federal government have grown at an accelerating rate since 9-11, and especially during the Obama Administration. To many people, particularly in the West and the South, the Federal government has become an enemy to their way of life, expressing and defending repugnant values, and ceaselessly encroaching upon rights they hold dear. Rural whites in both areas are often deeply resentful of the federal government, believing it exists to favor minorities over them. More broadly, there is at least a plurality of conservative whites in all areas—rural, urban and suburban–who fear the relentlessly expanding writ of the Federal government, particularly as expressed most recently with the government takeover of the healthcare industry, as indicative of their loosening grip on the nation they and their ancestors built.
The perception is that the Federal government is run by a cabal of urban sophisticates who believe they know better how people should live their lives. And that government exists as a platform for expressing their progressive ideals, gaining power to do so by pandering to a coalition of minorities, immigrants and homosexuals. The whole thing seems to be a conspiracy to rob the backbone of the country, the sons and daughters of European immigrants who came together and cooperated to build the greatest nation the earth has ever know, of their patrimony. And they would by and large be right.
Which is how these ranchers and militia men and others have something in common with Vladimir Putin. On the international stage, the US government is every bit as oppressive, expansive and hubristic in its relations with other countries as it is with its uncooperatives at home. It has been reading its press clippings, thinking that it is tantamount to God, with limitless power, incapable of doing wrong; that even when it does things reasonable people might agree are wrong, like killing people more at less at random through Predator drone strikes, it doesn’t matter, because it does it all for a good purpose, which is to spread its particular version of secular Western values to all corners of the globe. But the US government is not as powerful as it pretends. Putin, for one, has realized as much, spitting in the West’s eye, “liberating” Crimea with nary a shot being fired, and only a few peeps about the “consequences” from the Progressive cabal. Maybe Cliven Bundy has realized the same. The expansion of the domestic Federal writ can not continue apace. Never mind Ukraine, even in Bunkerville, Nevada, the Federal government has little power to impose its will on the ground. And it has pandered itself to ultimate domestic irrelevance by promising far more than it will ever be able to deliver.
It’s too bad Bundy doesn’t speak Russian. Putin might then have an excuse to intervene.
For more details on the history of the confrontation, the Washington Post has an excellent summary, found here.