Few issues have calcified viewpoints on the government in the western U.S. like the tense standoff in southeast Nevada this week between federal authorities representing the enforcement of public land use under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. The standoff in southeast Nevada between armed federal officials and armed citizens was resolved without bloodshed when BLM realized how the situation was devolving and wisely chose to suspend the operation, withdraw from the scene and return Bundy’s confiscated cattle.
The standoff was initially over unpaid grazing fees by Bundy, but the issue has taken on significance well beyond that in many Americans’ minds. The federal government claims Bundy owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees dating back to the early 1990s. Bundy says he recognizes state authority, but not federal authority, in the regulation of land his family has utilized for more than a century. Thus, he says he won’t pay the federal portion of the fees.
His claims have been twice denied in court, so he doesn’t seem to have a legal leg to stand on, but Bundy is undeterred. He’s drawn his line in the sand as the last survivor among many who used to work this area. The others, however, were forced out of business when BLM cuts to their grazing permits over habitat concerns for an endangered tortoise made continuation impossible. By some reports, however, that endangered tortoise, which was deemed more important than livestock grazing, is not deemed more important than wind and solar development planned for the area.
Landowners in the West operate within a unique set of challenges. After all, the federal government is by far the largest landowner in the area (as it is in the U.S.). State and federal land ownership exceeds 30% in at least 16 U.S. states, including 90% of Alaska, 80% of Nevada, 70% of Utah, and 65% of Idaho. Thus, operating with public land leases is a necessary way of doing business for many western grazing operations, and the majority of these arrangements go without a hitch.
But with such major land holdings tied up in government hands (and subject to unexpected, sometimes politically motivated, changes), operating in the environment can be challenging. Plus, there’s a strong vein of self-reliance and independence in these folks – “you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.” They don’t much trust government, and the BLM’s ham-fisted attempt to forcibly take by arms Bundy’s cattle is illustrative of many people’s concern about governmental tyranny and overreach.
Despite Bundy's arguments having been rejected by two appeals courts, the BLM-Bundy case has morphed into a much wider debate over freedom, personal property, state rights, taxation, government overreach, even the Second Amendment. Many say the rule of law must be upheld, but many also see the Obama administration picking and choosing which laws it deems as worthy of being enforced.
Bundy and his supporters were hardly gracious in victory, almost taunting federal enforcers to come at them again. Some see the situation as lawlessness; others deem it as the first shot in a take-back of the country. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader and a figure at the center of this controversy in a number of ways, told a Las Vegas, NV, television reporter in a matter-of-fact way that the situation “isn’t over.”
The federal government has plenty of tools at its disposal to wring the penalties it wants from Bundy – it didn’t have to take the inflammatory, high-visibility method it chose. What the federal government’s next step will be isn't known, but it can hardly let the situation stand. It’s a certainty that some people will cheer that action, whatever it is, while many others will condemn it, whatever it is.