One thing about that mangy posse of anti-government crackpots camped out at Cliven Bundy’s place in the Nevada desert: Most don’t know a thing about cattle ranching.
See, it’s calving season across most of the country. No rancher worthy of the name is going to run off, leaving his cows to fend for themselves, while he fights somebody else’s battles. Particularly not some deadbeat who refuses to pay his grazing fees and who claims that the same laws that apply to every other rancher in the United States don’t apply to him.
A guy who wraps himself in the stars and stripes while proclaiming, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Me, I’m keeping a close eye on the best heifer I’ve ever bred for signs she’s going into labor. Her name is Sarah. Last August I turned down an opportunity to sell Sarah for three times the market value because I was eager to breed her. Bernie the bull arrived at our place last Fourth of July, so it could be any time now.
I’ve spent most of the last three days worrying over Trudy’s newborn calf. Although her udder appeared to have been nursed when I found them back in the pine thicket where Trudy had hidden to deliver, I never actually saw the little heifer feeding until last night. Trudy, see, delivered a stillborn bull calf two years ago and lost another last spring. Hence my anxiety.
For what it’s worth, I also have a photo of myself that I made for a French friend who’d been teasing me about being a cowboy — white Stetson, horse, shotgun and my best Clint Eastwood squint. Alain didn’t really get the joke, but I could even pass for this Bundy joker in dim light. See, it’s partly a costume drama Fox News is helping this con man stage.
Although my own little operation is more of a hobby than a business, I do try not to lose money. However, many of my Perry County, Ark., friends and neighbors are cattle ranchers for real. It’s damned hard making money on cows, but nobody around here imagines they can graze cattle in the Ouachita National Forest for nothing. Every single one pays for his own land, pays property taxes, pays the water bill and pays for any pasture he rents — all things Cliven Bundy takes for free from the U.S. government while styling himself a rugged individualist.
Nationally, some 18,000 ranchers lawfully graze 157 million acres of federally owned property supervised by the Bureau of Land Management, at subsidized rates. No wonder the Nevada Cattleman’s Association — not exactly a left-wing organization — has stated that, while its membership has perennial issues with the BLM, it encourages obeying the law and “does not feel it is our place to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter.”
See, this isn’t land the U.S. seized by eminent domain. Surrendered to the feds by Mexico in 1848, it never belonged to the state of Nevada, which didn’t yet exist. The U.S. District judge who ordered Bundy’s cattle removed ruled that he “has produced no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada, or that his cattle have not trespassed.”
For that matter, Nevada author Edwin Lyngar points out that without plentiful public cut-rate grazing permits, “there would be no ranching of the kind that allows Mr. Bundy to make a living. There would be less ‘wide open’ for which the West is famous.”
No way could Bundy or anybody like him afford to buy the vast acreage he’s grazing for free. Many westerners only think they’d like to see the feds sell off their extensive properties in states like Nevada, where the U.S. government owns fully 87 percent of the land. But they might feel differently after the likes of Ted Turner, the Koch brothers and various international corporations bought up the range, cross-fenced it and posted “no trespassing” signs everywhere.
See, it’s a form of welfare that the BLM oversees, but it helps sustain a way of life Americans are nostalgic about. The various “sovereign citizen” groups and armed militia types playing soldier in the desert, however, are something else. While the BLM was wise not to confront the mob, the current triumphalism among far-right zealots can’t be seen as anything but ominous.
One wonders, however, how the armies of April will react to a Las Vegas TV station’s revelation that much of Bundy’s personal saga is make-believe. Grazing Golden Butte since 1877? Not quite. His father bought the Bunkerville ranch in 1948; they began renting BLM land in 1954.
Otherwise, the feds have time on their side. They can slap liens on everything Bundy owns. And come July or August, camping out in the Nevada outback won’t seem half so exciting.
Gene Lyons is a nationally syndicated columnist.