Just when we thought we’d seen the last of indignant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, his children and other militia supporters of the libertarian “land rights” cause joined protesters at yet another demonstration against the Bureau of Land Management last weekend, this time atop a canyon in Utah.
About 40 to 50 people rode all-terrain vehicles onto the 14-mile stretch of trail in southwest Utah’s Recapture Canyon that is closed to motor vehicles, an act of defiance against government control over public lands. Not unlike the now-infamous standoff between Bundy and his armed militia of supporters and Bureau of Land Management agents at Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nevada ranch last month, many of this weekend’s protesters were waving American flags, and some of them were sporting camouflage and carrying guns. In an effort to avoid an altercation, the BLM stood down.
“Rosa Parks didn’t have a case until she sat in front of the bus,” yelled one protester in favor of riding on the closed trail. “The BLM has guns and mace and Tasers and shackles, but we’ve got guns too!” another shouted.
Unlike the battle at Bunkerville, where BLM agents attempted to remove cattle from Bundy’s federally-owned ranch because of his refusal to pay the grazing fee for two decades, Saturday’s rally was held in response to seven-year-old rule that makes a relatively small portion of the trails around the Canyon off-limits to motor vehicles in order to protect artifacts and burial sites of the ancient Pueblo peoples. There are more than 2,800 miles of trails on public lands around the Canyon that are vehicle-friendly. Plus, people are still allowed to hike and ride horseback on this part of the trail. But to those who illegally rode their ATVs on protected land Saturday, and to the greater numbers of people who showed up for the earlier rally, the federal government’s ability to determine which lands can and cannot be used, and how, is a gross infringement on states’ and individual rights.
Also unlike the Nevada showdown, this most recent protest against the institution of federal land management was led not by a rogue—and as we’d later discover, racist—rancher, but a public official: San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
“We’re not proponents of breaking the law,” Lyman told reporters before the illegal ride. “This was a supervisor’s discretionary closure. It’s a county road. We claim it. Just because the BLM owns the property, that doesn’t mean they own the right-of-way that exists.”
Despite their differences, the back-to-back demonstrations illuminate a deep-seated and, at times, contradictory resentment toward the Bureau of Land Management that has been simmering in the western United States for decades but has started to boil over in recent years.
Federal ownership over public lands dates back to 1785, when the concept was introduced almost entirely as a means of making money for the government. The Bureau of Land Management as it exists today was not created until 1946, combining the General Land Office and the Grazing Service into one agency tasked with regulating such activities as fishing, hiking, camping, off-road vehicle driving, shooting, fracking, logging, and mining while maintaining cultural and natural heritage preserves. The U.S. government’s interest in protecting and conserving historical properties had been in vouge since the beginning of the 20th century, with the election of Conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 and the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
As the conservationist movement expanded to protect endangered species and historical sites, resistance mounted in the 13 western states where between 20 and 85 percent of the land off which people live and work is owned by the federal government.
The first major incarnation of this pushback was seen in the Sagebrush rebellion, a movement forged in the 1970s in response to the designation of National Wilderness lands in western states by the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM. The so-called “rebels,” miners, loggers, ranchers, etc., pushed for states or individuals to have control over the wildland, much of it sagebrush, which they wanted to use for grazing, off-road vehicle use—anything but federally-mandated wilderness conservation.
The latent land-rights movement resurfaced in the mid-90s, when one Cliven Bundy was first featured in a Washington Post article about ranchers refusing to pay fees to graze their livestock on land the BLM had designated for conservation efforts—in particular, to protect the threatened desert tortoise. (Fast forward to April 2014 when, after countless warnings and numerous lost court cases, Bundy and his ragtag militia of armed neighbors staved off BLM agents attempting to round up cattle he’d been illegally grazing on public land for over 20 years, giving him a little more than 15 minutes of conservative media celebrity.)
More recently, politicians and elected officials have joined in the fight for state control over public land. In 2012, Arizona tried and failed to pass a referendum giving the state exclusive authority over water, minerals, air, wildlife and public lands—including the Grand Canyon—within its boundaries. Last month, over 50 political leaders from nine western states met in Salt Lake City to discuss how they can successfully take control of their public lands, rich with oil, timber and minerals, away from the federal government.
At the Summit, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart clarified that the event was planned before Bundy’s battle with the BLM, but noted that “What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem.”
Technically Lockhart and her colleagues have Bundy, and subsequently Lyman and his protesters, to thank for bringing the land rights debate into the national consciousness. However, the threats of violence and glaring inaccuracies spouted by the most visible and vocal supporters of the movement don’t exactly legitimize their cause.
The animosity toward the Bureau of Land Management has long manifested itself in threats of violence from the feds’ staunchest opponents. In 1995, tensions between frustrated ranchers and federal agency reached its peak when a small bomb blew out the windows of a U.S. Forest Service district office in Carson City, Nevada. No one was hurt, but the Forest Service district manager for Nevada said at the time that his employees were mostly travelling in pairs out of concern for their safety, and that they and their children were treated like lepers in the communities where they worked—harassed at school and in church, refused service at stores and restaurants.
BLM workers in southern Utah have long been advised against wearing their uniforms as a means of avoiding threats, but there are only so many ways one can hide while on the job. Last week, two men in rural Utah approached a BLM worker driving a marked federal vehicle, pointed a handgun at him and held up a sign that read, “You need to die.” The protest at Recapture Canyon was non-violent, though there were guns present. Bundy, of course, did threaten violence and there’s no question that his heavily armed band of supporters were successful at keeping federal agents at bay.
On top of the threats of violence, the legitimacy of the land rights cause crumbles under contradictions, inconsistencies and blatant hypocrisies spouted by those who promote it. Bundy is perhaps the best example of this. Despite claiming “ancestral rights” to the property he and his cattle currently occupy, the Bunkerville ranch has only been in the Bundy family since 1948. They didn’t even start grazing cattle there until 1954, eight years after the BLM came into existence. In fact, if anyone has ancestral rights to Bundy’s land it’s the Western Shoshone Nation. In an article republished by The Nation, Native American writer Jacqueline Keeler notes that the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley granted the Shoshone sovereignty over the land on which Bundy’s cattle illegally graze. “So if Cliven Bundy wishes to pay taxes or grazing fees—he should pay it to the Shoshone,” she writes.
The piece of Recapture Canyon that Saturday’s protesters insist they have a right to drive on is closed off in order to preserve artifacts that offer invaluable insight into how ancient Native Americans lived.
“Damage to archaeological sites is permanent and the information about our collective past is then lost forever,” the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance’s Jerry Spangler told The Salt Lake Tribune in response to the protest. “It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor. It is worse that protesters would be so blinded to their own insensitive as to what others consider to be sacred treasures of their past.”
Libertarians—the proponents of hands-off government, including land rights activists—are fond of appropriating Native American imagery to evoke negative sentiments toward the federal government, especially with regards to gun control. Last year, several gun control opponents warned that federal gun regulations would lead to a massacre akin to that of nearly 300 Lakota Indians by U.S. soldiers near the South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. “Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history,” one blogger at Libertarian politician Ron Paul’s website DailyPaul.com wrote last year. “It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people.” A popular Internet meme picturing a Native American tribal leader surrounding the words, “I’m all for total gun control and trusting the government to protect you…After all, it worked great for us,”promotes the same message.
That believers of the same ideology would try to appeal to the emotions of Native Americans to promote one agenda, while shamelessly ignoring the rights of those same people in an effort to further another cause, is ironic to say the least. So, too, is Bundy, a literal freeloader in every sense of the word, suggesting that black people would be better off as slaves than “under government subsidy.”
Bundy, with his unsubstantiated claims to ancestral rights, his flagrant disregard for the law, and his racist rantings, was probably just about the worst person to assume the role as the public face of a valid argument. But, Salon’s Matt Bruening argued shortly after Bundy’s BLM standoff ended, behind the very unsympathetic folk anthero’s blustering was a legitimate issue worth considering: the issue of property rights.
“Who is the state to determine who gets what resources?” he asked. “Or, alternatively, why should we think that the way the state has currently determined that question is the correct one?” After all, he pointed out, the sit-ins during the civil rights movement were essentially challenges to state property laws, laws that allowed business owners to discriminate against certain customers based on their race and that required police to enforce that discrimination.
“I applaud the basic idea that we should be rethinking our economic institutions and whether they are actually serving us the way they ought to,” Bruening wrote. “When 75 percent of the things in this country are controlled by 10 percent of the people, I’d say they aren’t serving us well. And like Bundy, I’d be up for some civil disobedience against the statist property institutions that create and enforce that disparity as well.”
What remains to be seen is whether the more rational voices have a shot at winning this debate and how. No part of the discussion about states’ rights to control public land offers any evidence to suggest that, under state rule, public lands will suddenly become a free-for-all. So while states may very well one day make a compelling enough case for why they should have dominion over the water, land and resources within their boundaries, the chances are slim that such a victory would produce the kind of no-rules utopia Bundy and his acolytes dream of.