Cowmageddon: Feds retreat from Nevada ranch standoff

When I wrote about the Bundy ranch standoff in Nevada last week, it seemed like the increasingly ominous standoff was leading up to something.  As it turns out, it was leading up to a remarkable retreat by the Bureau of Land Management, which withdrew from the disputed area, dismantled its First Amendment Zones, and even released the 400 cattle it seized from rancher Cliven Bundy.

Big Government at work: Bundy allegedly owes $1.1 million in grazing fees, so the BLM spends north of $3 million on a massive operation involving air and ground forces to lock down a patch of land the size of Delaware… and they end up releasing the cattle.

Fox News related the white-flag statement from the Bureau of Land Management, which signaled that the whole mess would be rolling back into the courtrooms, where it has been percolating for over 20 years:

“After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, [rancher Cliven] Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” a statement from the bureau said. “We ask that all parties in the area remain peaceful and law-abiding as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service work to end the operation in an orderly manner.”

The BLM also announced that it was wrapping up its month-long operation to seize the 900 cattle roaming on federally owned land approximately 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas and would release the 400 head of Bundy’s cattle it had already seized “in order to avoid violence and help restore order.”

“Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” the statement read.,” the statement read.

Bureau officials had dismantled designated protest areas supporting Bundy, who they say refuses to comply with the “same laws that 16,000 public land ranchers do every year.”

A group of about 1,000 supporting Bundy cheered and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” when BLM made its announcement.

Rancher Cliven Bundy described the federal withdrawal as a rout.  “There is no deal here,” he said of his meeting with federal authorities.  “The citizens of America and Clark County went and took their cattle.  There was no negotiations.  They took these cattle.”

Supporters of the Bundy family had been flooding into the area, many of them armed, to face off against a heavily-armed land management team that drew criticism – including the ire of Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, and its junior Senator, Republican Dean Heller – for their heavy-handed tactics.  A large group of protesters gathered at the BLM cattle pens in an event CBS News describes as “storming the cattle gate,” although “the showdown was resolved with no injuries and no violence.”  Evidently the “storming” involved a lot of chanted slogans and shouted insults, which would make it a “siege” in the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” sense.

There was plenty of absurdity on display during this confrontation – the image of the government’s “First Amendment Areas” surrounded by orange safety fences should haunt us for years to come – but something massively ugly was brewing, with increasing talk of such deadly encounters as Waco and Ruby Ridge.  A great deal of pent-up frustration against government over-reach made the Bundy ranch into a rallying point for resistance.  The Christian Science Monitor mentions a less violent, but bitter and long-running conflict when it put the struggle between the defiant rancher and the BLM into the context of the “Sagebrush Rebellion”:

In Bundy???s case, the story goes back to the 1870s, when his Mormon pioneer ancestors first began ranching on public land, which eventually came under the domain of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Bundy claims the land is his, although he does not have legal title to it.

Many ranchers in the rural West run their cattle on federal land, paying regular grazing fees that are based on cow-calf pairs. Such ranches range from small, family-based part time operations to large corporations based in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Bundy had refused to pay the fee, which led to the attempt to seize his cattle.

One problem over the years is that some ranchland across the West was over-grazed as cows in what is a dry, fragile ecosystem naturally headed for the water and tasty willows, trampling and fouling streams. This in turn damaged the habitat of fish and other wildlife species ??? some of which dwindled to dangerously low numbers. In the Bundy story, it was a federally-protected desert tortoise.

As relatively new environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act came into play, conflicts over land use arose to the point where so-called ???Sagebrush Rebellions??? ensued.

Mixed into this legal and political fracas ??? many cases like Bundy???s have ended up in court ??? were deeper disputes over preserving the ???customs and culture??? of the Old West in the face of New West modern development (vacation homes, sometimes known dismissively as ???ranchettes???), recreational activity, and especially environmental protection.

The stories of conflict ??? and in some places resolution ??? often included mixed interests.

You can say that again.  Some critics of the Bundy crackdown say Nevada’s other Senator, Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid, is one of the interests in this particular mix.  Radio host Dana Loesch lays out that case at her website:

The BLM asserts their power through the expressed desire to protect the endangered desert tortoise, a tortoise so ???endangered??? that their population can no longer be contained by the refuge constructed for them so the government is closing it and euthanizing over a thousand tortoises. The tortoises, the excuse that BLM has given for violating claims to easements and running all but one lone rancher out of southern Nevada, is doing fine. In fact, the tortoise has lived in harmony with cattle in the Gold Butte, Clark County Nevada for over a hundred years, or as long as Cliven Bundy???s family has lived on the land as ranchers. In fact, the real threat to it is urbanization, not cattle.

A tortoise isn???t the reason why BLM is harassing a 67 year-old rancher. They want his land. The tortoise wasn???t of concern when Harry Reid worked BLM to literally change the boundaries of the tortoise???s habitat to accommodate the development of his top donor, Harvey Whittemore. Whittemore was convicted of illegal campaign contributions to Senator ReidReid???s former senior adviser is now the head of BLM. Reid is accused of using the new BLM chief as a puppet to control Nevada land (already over 84% of which is owned by the federal government) and pay back special interests. BLM has proven that they???ve a situational concern for the desert tortoise as they???ve had no problem waiving their rules concerning wind or solar power development. Clearly these developments have vastly affected a tortoise habitat more than a century-old, quasi-homesteading grazing area. If only Clive Bundy were a big Reid donor.

The saga of the sizable fortune Harry Reid somehow amassed, despite a lifetime of ostensibly modest income in politics, includes a number of incidents where the law just happened to align itself with the financial interests of Reid and his supporters, as chronicled by Betsy Woodruff of National Review.  Woodruff notes that it’s difficult to say just how much money Reid has salted away, because while he’s fond of throwing around wild accusations about other people being tax cheats, he adamantly refuses to release his own tax returns.

Dana Loesch also says mainstream media reporting about the immediate cause of the government’s futile cattle roundup is incorrect, as Cliven Bundy has not categorically refused to pay grazing fees:

Those who say Bundy is a ???deadbeat??? are making inaccurate claims. Bundy has in fact paid fees to Clark County, Nevada in an arrangement pre-dating the BLM. The BLM arrived much later, changed the details of the setup without consulting with Bundy ??? or any other rancher ??? and then began systematically driving out cattle and ranchers. Bundy refused to pay BLM, especially after they demanded he reduce his heard???s head count down to a level that would not sustain his ranch.

Bundy OWNS the water and forage rights to this land. He paid for these rights. He built fences, established water ways, and constructed roads with his own money, with the approval of Nevada and BLM. When BLM started using his fees to run him off the land and harassing him, he ceased paying. So should BLM reimburse him for managing the land and for the confiscation of his water and forage rights?

Many of Bundy’s supporters see him as the victim of a rigged system that punishes those without the right political connections.  Others denounce central government arrogance and the subordination of state law, even if they don’t buy into theories of outright corruption.  It’s also unsettling to discover that every agency of the federal government appears to have a paramilitary strike force on standby.  Power accumulates, resistance grows, and enforcement escalates; it’s an old formula that really shouldn’t surprise anyone, even though the inevitable confrontations might seem astonishing when they arrive.

Update: The Blaze also posed a number of questions about the Bundy situation and special-interest involvement, noting in Question #6 that the oft-discussed Chinese solar farm deal did indeed feature “heavy involvement” from Senator Reid and his son Rory, who is a lawyer, but the project would have been located a couple hundred miles away from the disputed grazing area, and the Chinese company in question appears to have scuttled the project last summer.  The Blaze also chronicles Cliven Bundy’s unsuccessful efforts to dispute federal authority over the land, and finds the answers to some of its other questions, including charges that other ranchers in the area were driven out of business by the federal government, inconclusive.

Update: The editors of the Las Vegas Review Journal must be counted among the tougher critics of the BLM’s behavior during the Bundy standoff, accusing them of “behaving like thugs loyal to a tin-pot dictator, not public servants who swore to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.”

The federal government is well aware that plenty of people disagree with Washington???s decision to remove rancher Cliven Bundy???s cattle from public range lands his family has used for more than a century. In fact, many people, including the Bundys, disagree to such an extent that they???re furious. And they want those rounding up the cattle to know it.

But federal authorities are using public unhappiness with the action as grounds to limit protests to that very action. They???ve closed off hundreds of square miles of public land. They???ve closed roads. And they prohibited protected assembly and expression across huge areas of Clark County. They even took the step of creating ???First Amendment areas??? ??? where no federal official or contractor directly involved in the roundup would ever have to see protesters.

You see, even peaceful protests can be intimidating to government types. If government types feel slightly threatened, they arm themselves to the teeth. When they arm themselves to the teeth, they???re far more likely to view a peaceful protest as cover for an attack on the government. And if they believe someone holding a sign or a camera might also have a gun, agents are more likely to hurt someone. Thus, the government suspends the First Amendment as a public safety measure: Citizens are denied their rights to peacefully assemble and engage in political speech because the content of that expression might be ???intimidating??? enough to make government agents overreact and hurt them.

“The dispute will be characterized as a rallying cry for the tea party,” the editors conclude – probably a reasonable prediction, although the standoff wasn’t a Tea Party event per se.  “But this desert drama is the just the latest front in the decades-long government assault on all of our rights. If we don???t defend them, eventually we???ll lose them. Then the joke will be on us.”

Update: Glenn Beck conducted a lengthy interview with rancher Cliven Bundy today, in which they discussed Bundy’s objections to the federal government claiming power over state and county authorities.  The audio is embedded below; there’s a somewhat clumsy skip over a commercial break about halfway through (apologies for the crude editing.)

Update: Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips asks a few questions at the Washington Examiner, and suggests the House Oversight Committee should do the asking with subpoenas: “Who ordered the initial raid?  Why did Clark County sell land to ENN at far below its fair value?  Who ordered the BLM show of force?  Why did the BLM impose a no-fly zone over the Bundy Ranch so the media could not get video or photographs of what was going on?”

Phillips concludes with a final question: “What did Harry Reid know, and when did he know it?”