Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over the agency’s roundup of his cattle will go down in history as a high-profile clash of Old West values with today’s federal regulations on the use of public lands and natural resources.
The Bundy saga, rooted in the rancher’s refusal to pay grazing fees for more than two decades, has not yet ended. After the BLM abruptly ended the weeklong roundup near the ranch 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas on Saturday, land agency officials said other unspecified administrative remedies would be pursued.
The roundup was halted because of employee safety concerns. Federal agents released Bundy’s livestock after a brief standoff with protesters and armed militia members who rallied to support the rancher.
BLM spokesman Craig Leff would not comment Monday. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spoke Monday at the University of Nevada, Reno, made it clear the Bundy case is far from closed.
“I have been very clear in saying this thing is not over, OK?” said Reid in a Reno Gazette-Journal report. “It’s not over. You can’t have someone violate the law. I have said that many times.”
Past conflicts between the populace and the federal government have met varying degrees of success. But they often draw widespread media attention and support from across the nation.
In 2000, the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade dug its way into Nevada history.
In Elko County, locals were upset by the U.S. Forest Service’s refusal to fix a washed-out road that provided access to a canyon. County leaders first tried to send a road crew to fix it, and the Forest Service objected in court and obtained a restraining order, said Grant Gerber, an Elko County commissioner.
Enter the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade.
“We set up the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, and it announced it was going because there was no restraining order against it,” said Gerber, an attorney who represented the brigade in court.
In December 1999, the brigade announced plans to fix the dirt road on July 4, 2000. The U.S. Forest Service tried to stop the effort in court, but a federal judge opted against issuing a restraining order.
By then, the brigade had received more than 13,000 shovels from some 30 states. By the time the big day arrived, more than 1,000 people were bused to the location, all wanting to have a hand in the repair of the worn dirt road.
Although a restraining order wasn’t issued, the Forest Service still sent news releases implying that participants were breaking the law, Gerber said. In the end, no one was arrested.
“The significance of it was more symbolic than anything,” Gerber said on Monday. “The government is just step by step eliminating roads for hunters and fishermen and ranchers and miners and just shutting down the West.”
The road remains open, but a lawsuit filed by environmental groups more than a decade ago seeks its closure.
Then there was the Klamath Falls water fight of 2001 in Oregon. The headgates of the Upper Klamath Lake were shut down by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of an action to protect the sucker fish, but the action affected hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that relied on the water supply for irrigation channels.
Congress took notice of the resulting protests and sent $20 million to aid the damaged farms.
Bundy quit paying grazing fees in 1993 in a conflict that grew out of range restrictions to protect the threatened desert tortoise.
A key issue in last week’s failed roundup — local control of public lands — has arisen in conflicts before. In Nevada, the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s resembled the Bundy situation as ranchers pushed back against federal land regulations.
“The underlying theme of the Sagebrush rebellion was local control of the land,” said Eric Herzik, department chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Part of that sentiment includes opposition to federal government’s oversight role.
“There’s a whole lot of resentment against big government,” Herzik said. “The thought is: ‘We are the true stakeholders here. We live here.’ So there’s a lot of resentment about the federal government telling people what to do.”
As for the BLM’s action on Saturday, he said: “That’s more kudos to the federal agency saying there are these armed guys here and before we bring in armed troops and someone really gets hurt as opposed to being hurt with a Taser, let’s see if we can figure something out.”
One of Bundy’s sons, Ammon Bundy, was shot with a stun gun on Wednesday by a BLM officer.
BLM spokesman Leff did not detail how the agency and the National Park Service intend to pursue judicial remedies after two court orders authorizing the roundup have failed.
“The gather is over,” Leff wrote in an email Monday. “The BLM and NPS have no further statement.”