Most people in the West understand that when we behold the horizon, when we walk toward it, what we see and the land we walk on often belongs to all of us. A majority of Westerners want to keep public land public, and so do most Easterners, Southerners and Midwesterners. But that fact hasn’t prevented a decades-long howling war against federal lands in the West, and it doesn’t reap the kind of headlines commanded by the long guns, big hats and cockamamie ideas of those who think the land is theirs, not ours.
I sometimes worry that the bad manners, and bad ideas, of people like Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan and their followers are getting normalized, or at least romanticized. These self-styled patriots counter-factually believe that land acquired by the United States well before most Western states existed must nonetheless be controlled by those states, or better yet, by themselves. (Native Americans, the original inhabitants, don’t figure in these fantasies.)
In Nevada, on Bureau of Land Management land northwest of Las Vegas, and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, the Bundys and hundreds of their followers precipitated armed standoffs with federal authorities to make their point. In both cases, some among them pointed guns at law enforcement, who chose not to contest the situations in the moment.
Now 17 of the Nevada “freedom fighters” — including the Bundys — will be prosecuted in three separate trials, the first of which is underway in Las Vegas. Prosecutions related to the Malheur takeover are over and done in Oregon — Ammon, Ryan and five other government-accused ringleaders were acquitted there, while four of their followers were found guilty. In the Nevada trials, the mix of charges — conspiracy, weapons, assault and other felonies — could put Cliven, his sons and others in prison for the rest of their lives.
I grew up in John Wayne’s Texas in the 1950s and ’60s, and it damn sure wasn’t normal to point guns at anyone, unless you were 6 years old and armed with a cap pistol. Now I live in Montana, where the same rules apply. I do not understand the arms brandishing the Bundys et al indulge in. It got one occupier killed at Malheur: Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, finally pursued to a roadblock, jumped out, reached for a loaded gun and was shot dead by state police. Pointing weapons at law enforcement communicates a new threshold of unaccountability, the cinematic mythos that a pistolero threatening violence equals kinghood.
As a taxpayer it is not lost on me that Cliven Bundy is allegedly in arrears of more than a million dollars in Bureau of Land Management grazing fees, fees that are already heavily subsidized by the rest of us. The Malheur standoff cost the government — taxpayers again — roughly $9 million, and the Nevada shenanigans and trials surely add hundreds of thousands more to that total.
Of course, those brought up on charges in Nevada and Oregon aren’t alone in trying to disassemble our public lands. A stubborn minority led by the Republican Party agree with the Bundys’ goal — privatization — if not their tactics. Abetted by President Trump, these people chafe at “Washington control” and claim that public lands like the just-designated Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, represent outrageous government overreach, not to mention a drag on the regional economy. When they talk about local control, though, they really mean transferring public assets to their friends in big business — oil, gas, copper, coal and timber.
Back in the 1980s, President Reagan and his secretary of the Interior, James Watt, tried to privatize Western federal lands, but the Sagebrush Rebellion was beaten back by the hunting and fishing lobby (Reagan voters, by the way). In January, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced a bill to allow the sale of 3.3 million acres of public lands. He was inundated with protests from his constituents — a new generation of anglers and hunters. Chaffetz quickly withdrew his bill.
I think I understand the Bundys. They are being goaded and used, easily agitated by the politics of big business that seeks to liquidate the last of the American wilderness. If the politicians and the pundits who want Washington to leave the West alone were truly interested in economics rather than cronyism, why not end subsidized grazing fees, or below-cost timber sales in places like Alaska’s Tongass National Forest? Why not erase the 1872 General Mining Law, which gives away public land to international mining companies?
It’s possible that in the Nevada trials, the Bundys will once again evade the law and win acquittal. But in the end, theirs is a lost cause. We regular peace-loving, rule-abiding citizens will not give up our public lands to anyone: not to armed desperadoes, not to contemporary robber barons, and not to the states, which can’t afford their upkeep.
These lands are our outdoor churches, our cathedrals — and keeping them that way is the real economic foundation of the West. Open spaces attract new, high-paying industries and yield billions of dollars in tourism and recreation. When we are young, we hunt, hike, fish, camp, backpack, paddle, horseback ride, walk, run, raft and bicycle on our shared lands, and when we are old we stare out at their undiminished beauty.
The great Wallace Stegner wrote in 1960 that it is the American wilderness that forms our national character, separate and distinct from that of other nations. That character, like the wilderness, is under pressure, weakening at the seams, as news reports tell us every day. In heated times like these I find myself much in need of going for a walk — a long walk, on my American land.
Rick Bass is writer in residence at Montana State University. His latest book is the short story collection “For a Little While.”
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