a crank in a cowboy hat

There’s a fuss happening out in Nevada, and it could get ugly.. It’s about — and I’m not making this up — grazing. Oh, the folks involved are claiming it’s about freedom and the Constitution and tyranny and all that, but that’s mostly bullshit. It’s more accurate to say it’s about a sense of privilege based on living in the same place and doing the same thing for a century and a half. But really, down at the bone, it’s about a crank in a cowboy hat.

You’ve seen it in movies; cattle grazing out on the open range in the Old West. Wide, open spaces. A handful of stalwart cowboys in big hats lazily keeping an eye on the herd. It’s all very picturesque, very cinematic, very American.

cattle grazing

When you’re watching the movies, though, you never stop to ask yourself a pretty basic question: Who the hell owns all that grazing land? For a long time, the answer was nobody. Or everybody, which is pretty much the same thing. The land was just there, so folks used it. As the United States expanded westward, the government gradually set about organizing and managing that unowned land. That eventually led to the creation of the Bureau of Land Management.

Today, about an eighth of all the land in the continental United States is considered public land — land owned in common by the people. It doesn’t belong to any individual, though individuals sometimes get to use it. We’re talking about everything from local municipal parks to national parks to open range. And that brings us to Cliven Bundy and the fuss in Nevada.

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

Bundy’s family has been ranching in Nevada since sometime in the 1880s. They own a chunk of land near the Utah border and some cattle. In the winter they keep the cattle near their ranch. But like most cattle ranches in the American West, they don’t own enough grazing land for their cattle to forage in the spring and summer. So the Bundy family and other area ranchers pay a fee to the U.S. government to graze their cattle on an allotment of public land.

Well, they used to pay the fee. In 1993, the government modified the allotment terms to provide protection for an endangered species — the desert tortoise. Bundy was raising cattle, not tortoises; he didn’t see why he had to abide by the new terms. So he stopped paying the allotment fee. But he didn’t stop grazing his cattle on the public land. For the last two decades, Bundy and his cattle have basically been trespassing.

In 1998, a Federal court ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from the land. He didn’t. After another fifteen years of pissing around, the government finally told Bundy to remove his cattle or they’d seize them. In July of last year they gave Bundy 15 days to remove his cattle. Again, he didn’t. This week, 260 days or so after the deadline, the BLM decided to stop being patient with Cliven Bundy. They started to remove his cattle themselves.


To some right wing dimwits, this equals tyranny. Bundy argues that his family have used that land since before the creation of the BLM, so his right to use the land preempts the government’s right to regulate it. He says he’ll fight against any attempt to take the cattle. He told the LA Times,

“I’ve got to protect my property. If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

This is why things might turn ugly. Bundy has gathered his friends. To a small number of uneducated, angry, well-armed anti-government types, Bundy is a hero who is fighting against government oppression. Some two or three hundred of them have rallied outside his ranch. The BLM and the US Park Service responded by sending in more law enforcement personnel. The situation keeps escalating as the protesters become more confrontational. Various so-called citizen militias have shown up as well.

“That is what we do, we provide armed response. They have guns. We need guns to protect ourselves from the tyrannical government.”

This would be the same tyrannical government that’s given Bundy twenty years to stop being a dick and pay the allotment fee. That’s some piss poor tyranny.

bundy supporters

It’s about fighting for OUR freedom, the sign says. Whose freedom? Apparently not the other ranchers in the region — the ones who’ve continued to pay their allotment fees. And apparently not the rest of the citizenry, who have a right to expect Bundy to pay a fee to use public land — OUR land — to feed HIS cattle. The only freedom I see at risk is the freedom of Cliven Bundy to be a freeloader.

In the video below you’ll hear one of Bundy’s sons compare the situation in Nevada to the movie Red Dawn. The movie is a conservative gun nut’s wet dream. It’s about a group of plucky American high school kids who fight a guerrilla war against an invading Communist army. I’ve no doubt that’s exactly how a lot of Bundy’s supporters see the Obama presidency — as some sort of foreign occupying power. And I suspect they see themselves as the heroic Wolverines, courageously fighting back against overwhelming odds in an attempt to liberate America from oppression.

In fact, they’re just standing up for some crank who doesn’t want to abide by laws he doesn’t agree with. A crank who says he doesn’t recognize the Federal government but still tries to use the U.S. Constitution as a prop to support his claim that he has the right to treat public lands as if he owns them.

Cliven Bundy is no hero. He’s no patriot. He’s no defender of freedom. He’s just a crank in a cowboy hat.

16 thoughts on “a crank in a cowboy hat

  1. A crank who wants it both ways, and wants to capitalize on it politically. There are way too many willing sheep that will agree with his outrageous stance, too. Hope it doesn’t get ugly. That damned gubmint!


    • There’s a lot of really angry white folks out there, Jody, looking for some excuse to make some noise. And this is the sort of thing that could become a flash point. Most of the protesters are all talk, but if one of them takes a shot at the Feds then it could get real ugly real fast.


  2. This is not even real anger. This is an audition for a reality show for his sons who have never been employed by anyone else. They cannot possibly be making a living from the 135 cattle on that range.


    • No, I think it’s very real anger. I think, though, it’s a lot of free-floating anger at how the world is changing in ways some folks don’t like and won’t accept. They’re angry about gay people, and angry about a black president, and angry about the perceived loss of white privilege, and angry about having to pay attention to the environment, and angry angry angry. Situations like this give those angry people to something on which they can focus their anger.


  3. Fascinating stuff I have to say, for a complete outsider, and it all started with the protection of a tortoise! Sounds like some unease has been simmering down in Nevada for some time.


    • Anger against the government has been part of the culture of the American West since…well, since white folks moved there. It’s entirely illogical, since it’s government financial and tax support that makes it possible for most of those ranchers to survive.


      • So this is something that has always existed? What do you think has really brought it to a head now, it can’t just be the tortoise thing. Is it the proposed changes to gunlaws or… what’s the problem really?


      • Yeah, there’s a truly bizarre contradiction that’s always existed in the American West. Early settlers consistently asked the government for protection from the native tribes that had lived there, but also consistently resisted the government’s attempts to impose laws and restrictions on communities. It doesn’t make much sense, but there it is.


    • I thought there might be some amusing sign misspellings, so I went looking and ended up reading articles:
      “Although Bundy is in arrears for $1m in grazing fees, the BLM didn’t move in on his cattle until he herded them onto Gold Butte, the endangered reptile’s protected habitat.”
      So it’s now because the government finally acted on it, and because of the black president, the gays, etc. I’ll also wager it’s because he owes so much that he figures he has nothing to lose by fighting. Would he fight if he only owed a few thousand….


      • I think that million dollar reference must include court costs too. The grazing fees are incredibly cheap — each month Bundy had to pay US$1.35 for each cow/calf pair. That’s about four cups of Starbucks coffee each year to feed one cow and one calf.


  4. Pingback: i call bullshit | gregfallis.com

  5. Greg, have you dusted off your cowboy boots – because the Cowboy Revolution is a comin’!

    I’m all confused by this allegiance stufff – he abides by “all the laws of Nevada”, which surely must include, as being part of the union, obeying the federal government?

    The Guardian wrote: “The morning began with hundreds of protesters joined in prayer, singing and in recitation of the pledge of allegiance. By the afternoon….”

    Pledge of Allegiance! (<– I debated on whether to type that in all caps.)


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