Who came out on top in the Bureau of Land Management’s recent showdown with Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, and who was left looking like all hat and no cattle? Bundy, who hasn’t paid his grazing fees in two decades, drew support from militia types around the country as he resisted BLM’s efforts to round up his cows as part of an environmental program to protect desert tortoises. The standoff that followed could have easily turned disastrously violent. Instead, it was a minor dustup—albeit one that drew national media attention and cast a shadow on our country’s legal system. Here’s our take on the winners and losers:
• The BLM. Not only did its officers spectacularly mishandle the conflict on a number of levels, from setting up “First Amendment zones” for protesters to using a stun gun on one of Bundy’s 14 children. But the agency also let Bundy get away without paying for using public land —our land—for 20 years? The BLM already has a bad reputation in most rural areas, with officials facing death threats and intimidation as they try to do their often-unpopular jobs. The Bundy affair will likely further tarnish the agency’s image—including among the general public.
• Cliven Bundy. He could have positioned himself as a heroic fighter for Old West values, as some have tried to depict him. Instead, he has come off as a miser unwilling to pay his bills, which amount to $1 million—not including the labor costs of law enforcement assigned to the fracas, nor any damage done to the land by thrillseekers. By declaring that he doesn’t acknowledge the federal government, Bundy’s got a significant number of so-called Sagebrush Rebels who oppose federal control of public lands thinking he’s done their cause more harm than good.
While Bundy, who has gone from anonymity to fame, may seem like a winner for the moment, the federal government isn’t done with him, as Sen. Harry Reid told the press Thursday. As victories go, it’s like the Cubs claiming that if they finish above .500, they have won the World Series.
• The media. Reporting on the crisis was often skewed in Bundy’s favor—and not just from the usual suspects, such as Fox News and Sean Hannity. The friendly press encouraged preening politicians to join the circus. It didn’t help that the media didn’t immediately debunk the conspiracy theory, put forward by Bundy’s allies, that Reid was pushing the BLM roundup to promote a solar program that is in fact nowhere near the cattle in question and was shut down a year ago.
• Governor Brian Sandoval. Responding to “numerous complaints of BLM conduct” to his office, he said, “Most disturbing to me is the BLM’s establishment of a ‘First Amendment area’ that tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution … No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights in that area sacred to all Nevadans.” Apparently some constitutional rights are more sacred to Sandoval than others—such as the right to have our public lands benefit the public and not a single individual. If Sandoval had made it a point to say that Bundy, too, was in the wrong, it would be a different matter. He didn’t. And when he tries later on to become a federal judge or cabinet official—bet on either—he should be asked in any confirmation hearing about his failure to cool a heated situation.
• The rule of law. Let’s say you oppose the federal government spending any money in, say, Alabama, where officials constantly attack social programs. Why not refuse to pay taxes and fees? After all, Cliven Bundy hasn’t had to. Why should you? Our country is based on the premise that if we are unhappy with laws, we have recourse through the ballot box and legislative bodies. Bundy’s crusade, however, sends the message that people should pursue other means. Senator Harry Reid irked Bundy and his amen chorus by saying, “This is not over.” It isn’t, but it’s also hard to undo the example that this whole mess has set.
Listen carefully. You can hear the cicadas and crickets.