Something scary is happening in the so-called libertarian west. Armed terrorists have taken over a federal building in Oregon. By now, you know the story, even as it plays out in real time. It’s an escalation of an ongoing battle that started with the Cliven Bundy Ranch fiasco, wherein a gutless Federal government let a bunch of armed kooks run roughshod over basic law enforcement. Bundy refused to pay his grazing fees, and instead decided to make his private profit with stolen public resources, threatening violence if authorities attempted to correct his infractions. This latest dustup is superficially about a couple of ranchers given five-year prison sentences for setting fires that destroyed public land, but that is only a flimsy pretext; this is another round of antisocial behavior by a group of (mostly) men who are watching the decline—if not outright elimination—of their power and influence in the west.
This battle is not about individuals in any sense. Rather, it’s a fundamental disagreement about who controls public land. Nevada, like so many western states, has a tremendous amount of land controlled by the federal government. It’s complicated and technical, pitting business interests against recreation, access versus the protection of vulnerable species and habitat. The federal government does not always get it right and there are always winners and losers, but the vast majority of people who live here want public land to be protected, and the numbers aren’t even close. Thus, the central conceit of this battle is utter nonsense. By massive majorities, Nevadans do not want to give up public land to the likes of Cliven Bundy, who would use it to enrich themselves while denying access to others.
I use Nevada as a stand in for the entire western United States, even though this latest skirmish is just over the border in Oregon. Nevada is an effective case study, in part because the Sagebrush Rebellion has deep roots here. I also know about it firsthand, because I grew up an hour away from Elko, Nevada, the epicenter of the rebellion. As a young man, I sympathized with anti-government sentiment. I parroted their talking points, insisting that Nevada was “my” land. All the while, I argued that all public land should be sold to private entities, a move that would have destroyed my personal access to the outdoor places I most loved. I defended, loudly and with great ignorance, those people who wanted to take my beloved desert away from me.
When I grew up in rural Nevada, rural sensibilities were much more central to the state, but since then, Nevada has tripled in size. Nevada is the third most urban state in America, and other western states have seen similar growth. Yet the divide on this issue is not urban versus rural. Even rural people want access to the land, and western people value outdoors experiences, regardless of party or where we come from. The people who are trying to take all federal land—those men, armed and barricaded in Oregon—are a tiny slice of well-connected extremists.
Leading this latest insurrection are two of Cliven Bundy’s children, wealthy ranchers who are furious that they aren’t allowed to pillage public resource for their personal profit. The errant stepchildren of mining, grazing and big business interests, they’ve talked a cadre of armed, confused, and violent men into joining a lost cause. The entire enterprise reeks of the kind of impotent rage reserved for failed crusades. Although I don’t know the drivers of this clown car personally, I know a great many people that share the belief system.
This ugly militia movement, a violence-soaked snapshot in time is an imitation of grass roots activism. There are a few honest and good people who want federal land turned over to the states, but that number is dwarfed by those who want that land protected. The gun-toting faction is smaller still, and those few who’ve taken up arms reflect no values at all. If they somehow squeaked out a win, we would all lose. No longer would we be able to access our own public land to hike, bike, hunt or fish. These lands are our lands.
Even thought those gun toting nuts are a small and shrinking minority, they are still dangerous. In fact, people who don’t live in the Mountain West might not understand the level of rhetorical violence that is growing more common in our state and in our politics, and people who really care about Nevada (like me) must take some responsibility for the power they wield.
In 2014, no one showed up to vote in Nevada (as well as a few other states), so Nevada elected some politicians who are not only out of touch with the public but in some cases have broken with reality itself. Some, to Nevada’s undying disgrace, give this radical movement some cover. Michele Fiore, a current assemblywoman, has offered a vigorous defense of Cliven Bundy. Many Salon readers might know her from her armed Christmas card and her latest threats of violence against refugees. Fiore is both a Yosemite Sam caricature and embarrassment for not only Nevada but all of humanity, but she does reflect an honest rage by an active, armed and unhinged few.
Despite the gloom, it’s not all bad news in Nevada politics. The “rebellion” is losing, while moderate voices are gaining traction. Nevada’s moderate Republican governor, for example, has been masterful at taming the worst excesses of his own party. I don’t always agree with him, but he has stood up to the most extreme elements with remarkable courage. Also, in a somewhat controversial move, the Obama administration declared another 700,000 acres as a national monument in Nevada, further protecting it from development and exploitation. As a tiny, vocal minority rattles their AR15 assault rifles, the public and a few reasonable politicians trudge slowly toward reason.
Nevada is one state of many in the west, but it’s a microcosm of evolving politics and culture that in many ways is causing some in the shrinking minority to lash out. I’ve lived here long enough to witness the shift. We now recycle in Reno, and it’s becoming a university town. We have a budding arts district and Burning Man lives here. All the changes and growing diversity don’t threaten the people who live here, they make this place better. This is a state and culture where people can reinvent themselves and pursue their passions, interests and hopes with little interference. It is a culture that has been unfairly labeled the “libertarians west.” I would argue that it’s a tolerant, liberal and open west, much more in tune with microbrews than Cliven Bundy. The libertarian influence exists only as fable, told and retold by unreliable cowpoke narrators many of whom have never even ridden a horse.
Even if all public land were turned over to the state tomorrow, Nevada does not have the resources to manage it. It would have to be sold off to people like Bundy and others. It would be fenced in and exploited, and those of us who love the outdoors would have to settle for “outdoor recreation the video game.”
But please, don’t judge my beautiful state and its people by our loudest and most ignorant crackpots. It’s worth noting that they are often the same people who rail about immigrants and “Sharia Law.” Since they so often demand that all Muslims apologize for their worst examples, I as a Nevadan will apologize for our worst people: I’m really sorry about our latest crop of nuts. If I could find a way to disown them, I would do it.
Check out our video summary:
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