The new Sagebrush Rebellion in the interior West may fizzle out with the recent arrests and prosecutions of the Bundy clan and some of their troopers in the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters groups. Cliven faces charges that could bankrupt him while he spends the rest of his life behind bars. LaVoy Finicum paid the ultimate price.
Perhaps deterred by this unsuspected turn of events, many of their supporters are still angry, well-armed and laboring under the same delusions that inspired “Bunkerville,” the Malheur occupation and a few other lesser-known armed insurrections against federal authority in the past two years.
Jon Ritzheimer and Ryan Payne, two of Ammon’s top deputies, fancy themselves as reincarnations of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, or Travis, Crockett and Bowie at the Alamo — heroic, outnumbered rebels against a tyrannical government, determined to set the land free.
But this is no longer the wide open frontier and wild, wild West of their nostalgic ruminations, but a modern, fully populated nation wrestling with a potentially devastating ecological crisis: The greater West is now suffering a chronic drought that scientists say could be just the beginning of another century-long megadrought, like the one that eclipsed the Anasazi civilization in the 8th century. The land is going to have to be managed wisely if we are to avoid another Dust Bowl, driving the descendants of “Grapes of Wrath” Okies back to their homeland in Norman and all over the West. Do Idaho and Utah really want to be conquered by hordes of thirsty, real-estate-inflating Californians?
Ranchers have already overgrazed many areas of the West; parts of it now look like a moonscape — a sea of dry dirt, dimpled with hoof prints, without a single blade of vegetation in sight. If our publicly managed lands were completely opened up to unregulated private exploitation, as the Bundys and their covert sponsors, the Koch Brothers, want, the incentive will always be to return a quick, short-term profit for the investors, then the savvy players can sell out before the bubble bursts, leaving the rest of us stuck with the long-term consequences — another dust bowl or toxic pollution of aquifers.
Almost alone among Western ranchers, Cliven Bundy was in arrears on his grazing fees, to the tune of a million dollars plus over a 20-year period wherein the BLM essentially did nothing to enforce the law. Federal grazing fees are exactly 7 percent of the “free market” rate on private land, meaning the Bundys and other ranchers who graze on public land receive a 93 percent subsidy. But that wasn’t a good enough discount for Cliven Bundy, arguing that his Mormon ancestors in the 19th century bequeathed him some kind of priority claim to the federal land in Nevada. He lost that case in court — United States vs. Bundy, in 2004.
Having lost in the courts, Bundy announced, “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” and decided to take up arms and intimidate federal management and law enforcement officials. That worked for a while, as the feds wisely remembered the disastrous and genuinely overreaching exercises at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Ultimately, however, established law must prevail, and if the law is unjust, then it must be changed by lobbying, legislative and media efforts — not AR-15s pointed at hapless BLM employees.
One reason I love the West, and why I left Texas many years ago, is there is virtually no public land in the Lone Star state. I couldn’t do an overnight canoe trip on the Guadalupe or San Marcos rivers, because all the banks were privately owned and the owners were known to chase campers off at the point of a gun. Want to go out and shoot your guns at cans and targets, go on a long hike, or camp out under the stars? Forget it, unless you want to drive for 12 hours into west Texas or another state.
Here, in Idaho, Utah, Nevada and neighboring states, the whole bounty of the natural world is open to me; I can camp anywhere at no charge for two weeks at a single site on BLM land, then move on, hunt, fish, hike, bird watch, or just explore — without running into barbed wire and “No Trespassing!” signs. And that is my definition of “freedom” — the land doesn’t belong to some alien government, it belongs to all of us, not just greedy ranchers, drillers and miners, who also get their share.
It’s not just tie-dyed treehuggers, but also the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers association and all caring outdoorsmen, who want to keep our Western lands from degenerating into a lifeless, polluted, hoof-trampled Sahara.
Teddy Roosevelt, the great Republican trustbuster, valued the health and vitality of the American West over the demands of profiteering corporations in his day. If Teddy were alive now, I know he would not hesitate to kick Cliven Bundy’s ass.
Travis Kelly is a graphic artist and web designer at Travis Kelly Creative. A former resident of western Colorado, he lives in Boise, Idaho.