It’s been a year since Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his militia supporters stood down federal agents with the Bureau of Land Management outside Las Vegas.
Bundy owes more than $1 million in delinquent cattle grazing fees and penalties, but the BLM has stayed quiet in the year since the showdown, and Bundy’s supporters marked the anniversary by throwing a party.
For Robert Crooks, founder of the Mountain Minutemen, it was part reunion and part victory celebration.
“What you’re seeing here are the people that were here in the beginning, and will be here in the end,” Crooks said. “We’re gonna stand our ground.”
The event was billed as a “Liberty Celebration,” with a barbecue featuring Bundy-raised beef, patriotic music, cowboy poetry, off-roading and shooting. Crooks proudly carried his semi-automatic handgun on his hip. He spent a good deal of the past year camped out in his RV near the driveway that leads to Bundy’s ranch house.
“We the people stood with them, and Mr. Bundy got his cows back, and he’s got his ranch, and BLM’s gone,” Crooks said. “BLM no longer exists in this section of Nevada.”
Indeed, the BLM has pretty much stopped managing or patrolling a vast, southeastern corner of the state — centered in the Gold Butte region — because of safety concerns.
The standoff, and now a year of silence from the BLM and the region’s U.S. Attorney, has reinvigorated what’s often called the “sovereign citizen movement” on Western lands. One of its goals is for states and local sheriffs to take over management of federal public lands; this year, nearly a dozen legislatures in Western states have considered bills that seek to transfer ownership of federal lands to the states.
Nevada’s bill, sponsored by Republican state Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, has some momentum behind it. Speaking on a show she hosts on a Las Vegas conservative news talk station, Fiore said the effort was about getting “our land back in the hands of the people, where it belongs.”
The bulk of the state of Nevada is federal land open to various public uses — but the government’s management of it, in this state where distrust of Washington, D.C., runs deep, long has been controversial.
“Currently our federal government owns 84 percent of Nevada’s land and has been enforcing taxes and fees as they see fit for nearly 150 years,” Fiore said.
Fiore is a staunch Bundy supporter. Many conservatives distanced themselves from the rancher a few days after last April’s standoff, when he wondered aloud to a newspaper reporter whether black people were better off under slavery.
Some former federal land managers say the BLM’s inaction on the Bundy situation in the past year appears to be giving new momentum to the rancher and his supporters. Alan O’Neill, a retired park superintendent who ran the nearby Lake Mead National Recreation Area for 13 years, worries this sets a bad precedent.
“In other words, anybody that doesn’t want to follow any federal laws or regulations can do so if they have enough firepower with them,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill was involved in the negotiations that first led to environmental restrictions being placed on southern Nevada ranchers like Bundy in the mid-1990s.
“The more time goes by, the more brazen Bundy is,” O’Neill said.
The BLM declined an interview request from NPR; the agency said in a statement that, like a year ago, its primary goal is to resolve the matter safely and according to the rule of law. It’s clear, though, that federal officials are still worried about the possibility of violence if they were to return to the Bundy ranch.
Cliven Bundy wasn’t available for an interview Friday as his militia supporters and other activists were setting up. Family friend Shawna Cox, however, told NPR that this fight is about a lot more than some cows.
“Cliven and his family put their life, their children, their home, everything they had on the line to help stand up for the Constitution of the United States — for our freedoms,” she said.
Cox added that she and others plan to keep up their fight until the state of Nevada is in full control of this land.