The latest right-wing media poster-victim, Cliven Bundy, is just the latest in a long line of desert dwellers who thinks he or she should not have to follow the law and has a god-given right to unlimited use of public resources, in this case, rangeland. I know the mentality well, because I grew up in rural Nevada and clung desperately to such beliefs until only a few years ago.
Bundy has not paid grazing fees in close to 20 years, while the federal government has, with painful, stupid moves, tried to somehow deal with him. Bundy also faced restrictions because he continued to graze cattle on a slice of public land reserved for the endangered desert tortoise. He was invited to talk to Sean Hannity (of course) about the “standoff.”
“We want freedom,” Bundy said. I don’t know what freedom Bundy’s talking about. He does not own the land nor does he even pay the modest fees required to use it. Thousands of ranchers across the West pay fees for their businesses, but Bundy thinks he should get to use public resources to make a personal profit. Cliven Bundy, far from being a patriot, is also clearly a straight-up communist.
Bundy is using the language of freedom, patriotism and outright paranoia to further his business interests. He succeeded wildly in drawing other “patriots” to his slice of contested desert. I don’t know these exact people, but the words and phrases they used were the nursery rhymes of my childhood. I’ve been listening to ignorant people bitch about the federal “gub’met,” since I could crawl, and I’m weary of it. I can’t bear to hear poor people rally to the defense of moneyed interests like mining and ranching, like well-trained, bleating sheep. As tired and silly as I find his language, clearly it worked. He so inflamed the lunatic militia movement, that many rallied to him, often from out of state, with guns and naked threats. They created a real possibility that someone might get killed, so the feds backed down.
It is asinine in our age that an armed group of idiots can thwart reasonable government action. Bundy is not a hero, a victim or innocent in any way. Just think of real injustice of America, like people spending life in jail for marijuana charges. It’s hard to imagine the “militia,” a mostly fat, white and ignorant group, showing up to defend a kid in the inner city who was arrested for no reason. Also think what would happen to you, if you opted not to register your car for 20 years. Bundy exploits the most sickening version of white privilege to justify what amounts to theft.
The basic facts of this story obfuscate the decades of history, animosity and lies between the federal government and the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion that started in the late '70s. The movement is centered in Elko, Nev., a town next door to Battle Mountain, the much smaller town where I grew up. If you’ve not spent time in the rural desert, you’ll have a hard time understanding the vast spaces in play. Lander County, where Battle Mountain is located, is the geographic size of Vermont but has no more than 5,000 people.
I grew up on 40 acres of brown sagebrush. Particularly when I was a child, cattle roamed carelessly across our property. They even had right of way on my father’s land unless he fenced the entire lot with four-strands of barbed wire, an expensive and ugly option. This is the freedom for which patriots are fighting: for cows to trump personal property rights.
In some ways, Nevada has a legitimate beef with the federal government that owns 87 percent of all of Nevada’s land. That’s land that can’t be developed or sold, which cuts into Nevada’s tax base. However, that land is far from empty. People ride horses and recreational vehicles on it. They hunt it and file mining claims, and, yes, when appropriate a vast amount of it is open to grazing. Without “public” land, there would be no ranching of the kind that allows Mr. Bundy to make a living. There would be less “wide open” for which the West is famous.
We could argue about whether the land should belong to the federal government, but what is not in dispute is that Bundy has no ownership of it. He won’t even pay fees to use it. In short, he refuses to pay rent, like thousands of other ranchers do dutifully every year. Again, I’d like to observe if Bundy is not a communist, he’s at least an aggressive socialist.
Bundy’s foundational argument is that he “has been using the land for generations.” He claims to have “ancestors” who worked the land since the late 1800s. If Bundy wants to make this argument, he’ll need to chat to a Native American or two from one of the many different tribes in Nevada who were here far before Bundy’s ancestors. Also, I thought America was about building wealth through capitalism, rather than depending on your daddy to pass on his membership into the landed aristocracy. Bundy seems to think himself a member of the neo-nobility.
What is missed in this nonsense is that the land should not be managed based on feelings or business needs or family connections. In my Nevada experience, history and family too often trump concerns about what’s best for society and the public good. From where I sit, attitudes are changing for the better.
Bundy, like the sagebrush rebels who came before, has co-opted the language of the oppressed, wrapped in neo-Confederate sensibilities. The crazies have been loosed for good or ill, waving yellow flags and screaming the word "patriot," none of which has anything to do with subsidizing one man’s business. Even some of my close friends and family are outraged over this latest assault on “freedom.” I’m not far enough removed from this opinion to forget how it feels. You feel powerless and angry. I can hear my former inner voice: We live out here, not them. We should get to decide how to use the desert. It is as understandable as it is ill-informed and misguided.
I have to concede that certain employees of the federal government can be stupid and ham-handed dealing with people like Bundy. In this case, the feds probably should have removed Bundy’s cattle when he stopped paying grazing fees. The agencies involved also fumbled some parts of the latest tactic, playing into fears of government overreach with “Free Speech Zones” for protesters. So often the feds seem to botch the details, but one must give them credit for backing down in the end. No one, perhaps other than the raging right, wanted actual shooting. Perhaps now, quietly, the federal government can work with Bundy to get him to either pay his grazing fees or remove his cattle without creating a spectacle.
Bundy has no right to public land. The federal government and other land managers can and should consider the interests of ranchers, just as they should consider mining, recreation and the needs of wildlife, but Bundy is not the only person who has lived in the desert. His should not be even close to the final vote. He can whittle, spit and reminisce, while the rest of us build a modern, cooperative state worth living in.