By the time Gov. Brian Sandoval criticized the Bureau of Land Management for creating an “atmosphere of intimidation” while rounding up Cliven Bundy’s cattle, the militias were already on their way to Bunkerville, ground zero for what turned into an armed confrontation between gun-toting citizens and federal officers.
As governor, Sandoval had every right to weigh in and try to tamp down BLM’s tactics. It worked. Under political pressure and the threat of violence, the agency shut down the weeklong roundup April 12 and released several hundred “trespass cattle” that had roamed the federal public land for 20 years while Bundy refused to pay $1 million in BLM grazing fees.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval said in an April 8 statement in which he called on the BLM to take down designated “First Amendment” areas set aside for American flag-carrying demonstrators who were backing Bundy. “The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly,” the Republican added.
Sandoval was just one of more than a dozen politicians and candidates from Nevada and neighboring states who publicly denounced the BLM, although views were sharply divided on whether the agency, backed by court orders, had the legal right to remove Bundy’s cattle from land his family maintains it has been on since the 1870s.
Each time a public official or political candidate spoke out for or against the BLM or Bundy, the comments added fuel to an already hot-burning fire that quickly turned into a national inferno, pitting the romantic image of the cowboy rancher against the behemoth federal government that owns 85 percent of the Silver State.
WHEN THINGS GOT INTENSE
On April 9, the day after Sandoval’s statement, militiamen began showing up at the Bundy ranch, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas and a world away from the Strip’s busy casino corridor packed with tourists. Eventually, the crowd of Bundy supporters grew to more than 1,000, some openly armed with rifles and pistols.
“It seemed that once they got involved, things seemed to get a lot more intense,” David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said of the politicians. “This plays into the broad argument that stirs up Nevadans about autonomy. But you also have the rule of law.”
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the underlying theme of the BLM-Bundy standoff is the federal government overreaching by shutting down public land for the roundup, cutting off access to farmers and ranchers and travelers, to go after one man who has defied the feds for decades.
“Are people playing politics with this? Absolutely,” Herzik said. “I’m not surprised that more conservative Republicans would side with Bundy because they think Big Government is overreaching.”
He said he was surprised, however, that Sandoval issued such a harsh statement after one of Bundy’s sons was zapped with a stun gun and arrested and other protesters and residents complained of harassment by federal officers.
“You had an armed posse down there,” Herzik said. “That’s the scary part. You’re essentially encouraging a group of citizens to intimidate federal agents.”
Despite criticism of the BLM, Sandoval, a former federal judge, sided with the law as did more establishment political leaders such as U.S. Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., whose 4th Congressional District encompasses the disputed public lands.
Sandoval, seeing the situation getting out of control, issued yet another statement April 10, two days before the BLM ended the roundup as Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie started becoming involved to urge calm.
“The ability to speak out against government actions is one of the freedoms we all cherish as Americans,” Sandoval said. “Today I am asking all individuals who are near the situation to act with restraint. Although tensions remain high, escalation of current events could have negative, long-lasting consequences that can be avoided.”
Heller, too, issued a calming statement April 12 urging everybody to return home.
“The dispute is over, the BLM is leaving, but emotions and tensions are still near the boiling point, and we desperately need a peaceful conclusion to this conflict,” Heller said. “I urge all the people involved to please return to your homes and allow the BLM officers to collect their equipment and depart without interference.”
‘DOMESTIC TERRORISTs’ LABEL
After the standoff was over, Reid, who is rarely subtle in his criticisms, called Bundy supporters “domestic terrorists.”
“Those people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not. They’re nothing more than domestic terrorists,” Reid said Thursday during an appearance at a Las Vegas Review-Journal “Hashtags &Headlines” event at the Paris Las Vegas.
Reid said he talked last week with federal, state and local officials about Bundy as well as the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, which has not backed Bundy’s personal battle but has expressed concerns about access to public land. The senator said he spoke with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the heads of the FBI and Interior Department as well as Gillespie. Reid said he understands that a task force is being set up to deal with Bundy, and Gillespie is involved as well.
“It is an issue that we cannot let go, just walk away from,” Reid said.
As for Bundy, Reid said he “does not recognize the United States. He says that the United States is a foreign government. He doesn’t pay his taxes. He doesn’t pay his fees. And he doesn’t follow the law. He continues to thumb his nose at authority.”
On Friday, Heller said he didn’t agree with Reid’s characterization of Bundy’s defenders as “domestic terrorists” — he called them “patriots” — and the GOP senator called on Congress to hold hearings on the BLM’s conduct.
“I want to find out who’s accountable for this,” Heller said in a joint appearance with Reid on KSNV-TV, Channel 3.
REBUKE AND APOLOGY
Reid’s comments also earned him a rebuke from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
“I don’t think calling people names is going to calm this down,” Paul said on Fox News. “I think it’s liable to stir it up. So I think all parties, including Sen. Reid, should calm the rhetoric a little bit. Let’s try to have a peaceful resolution to this.”
Paul said he would like to see Nevada in charge of the public land within its borders instead of the federal government.
“This is a real, I think, intellectual and constitutional and legal debate, but it shouldn’t be about violence of arms, and I hope that the government will not be there in full arms and provoke a showdown and something terrible will happen,” Paul said. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”
Paul said he has legislation that could give states more control over federal land and the Endangered Species Act.
Only one politician apologized for his behavior, Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who was accused of telling a Utah official that people from that state were “inbred bastards” and “better have funeral plans” if they come to Clark County.
“I’m sorry about the way I’ve spoken about some folks,” Collins said, adding he never intended to “insult folks in Utah.”
In Nevada, conservative lawmakers and candidates have largely sided with Bundy, saying he has the right to work the land his family has been on for more than a century and decrying the federal control over Nevada, a legacy from when the state joined the union in 1864 and agreed to “disclaim all right and title” to unappropriated public lands.
Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, posted pictures on her Facebook page of her helping feed a calf.
Niger Innis, a civil rights advocate running for Congress, has been the most active and vocal. During an April 3 debate in Mesquite, he accused his opponent, Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, of not doing enough to help Bundy. Innis said a BLM agent unstrapped his gun when Innis approached him. The roundup began two days later on April 5.
Innis, a frequent national talk show guest, shared his views on Fox News and other stations. In an interview, he said he doesn’t regret making Bundy’s battle with the BLM a campaign issue as he seeks to win the June 10 GOP primary.
“These guys have done nothing to solve this problem,” Innis said of Hardy, Reid, Sandoval and other officials who haven’t been able to return much federal land to the Silver State. “Bundy is the lightning rod, but the real argument is over the 85 percent of our land that is controlled by the federal government. A sovereign state would have control over its land.”
Hardy has stayed mostly behind the scenes, discussing the issue with federal, state and local officials. He issued one statement on April 11, the day before the BLM halted the roundup.
“The events surrounding Cliven Bundy’s cattle are unfortunate and reflect a long-standing problem with federal government overreach,” Hardy said, adding he had spoken with Sandoval concerning the BLM’s heavy-handed tactics. “I fully support the rights of both Nevada residents and the Americans that have traveled from near and far to peacefully protest how their government chooses winners and losers.”
Hardy added that in Congress he would be a “vocal leader” of Nevada efforts to take back federal land.
Innis and Hardy are running for the 4th Congressional District seat held by Horsford, a freshman.
During the crisis, Horsford was active in trying to negotiate a peaceful ending to the conflict. He met with BLM and National Park Service officials as well as more than half a dozen local officials, including Hardy. He said they agreed to review everything from First Amendment rights to public land issues surrounding the Bundy-BLM standoff.
After the BLM released Bundy’s cattle, Horsford said he was pleased things ended without a shot fired.
“This is an appropriate action to defuse a situation that never should have escalated to the extent that it did,” Horsford said. “Local, state, and federal officials need to work in a cooperative manner to remove the BLM assets without any further intimidation from either side.”
Bundy praised the militia forces, saying they stepped in when the governor and Gillespie would not.
“You people had to go and do the sheriff’s work,” he said. “You people did the governor of the state of Nevada’s work.”
What happens now is anybody’s guess, but politicians are sure to speak up despite any unintended consequences.
“It’s a real no-win situation for everybody,” said Damore of UNLV. “You expect them (politicians) to do that. It doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.