Recalcitrant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is heading for what he hopes will be a good old-fashioned Western showdown over land rights.
But this time without guns.
The veteran cowboy, whose armed standoff last year with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights on federally-administered public lands almost led to violence, is taking a new tack in his battle for state sovereignty: lobbying the Nevada Legislature.
Backed by hundreds of supporters, Bundy plans to swarm a Tuesday legislative meeting to discuss a bill proposed to rein in Washington’s far-reaching might in Nevada.
He spent Monday on a bus loaded with mostly blue-collar men who share his philosophy that the federal government should release its stronghold on nearly 90% of the land in this arid Western state, allowing for increased rights by local residents to fish, hike and hunt there.
And in Bundy’s case, run his cattle free of charge there.
The group has prepared to stage a rally outside the Legislature before trooping inside to air their opinions as lawmakers discuss yet another possible law to suggest that Western states be granted more say in how the lands in their domains are managed.
That’s going to amount to an awful lot of cowboy hats at the afternoon meeting.
“This is not only a cowboy thing; it’s a ‘We, the people’ thing. It’s a freedom and liberty thing,” Bundy told the Los Angeles Times.
“We want access to our public lands. We want to claim our land, even though we don’t need to claim it because it’s already ours. But the federal government doesn’t seem to get that.”
At issue will be Nevada’s AB 408, which aims to diminish the role of pesky federal officials on public lands like a cow swatting a fly with its tail - just the latest of anti-Uncle Sam bills put forth across the West that have caught the attention of land and water advocacy groups.
“Bill 408 goes farther than even the most extreme bill we’ve seen so far - and we’re tracking 37 like bills in 11 Western states,” Jessica Goad, a spokeswoman for the group Center for Western Priorities, told The Times.
She said similar legislation in states like Utah and Arizona have ranged from a call to study state control of lands to a demand for Washington to turn all management over to state legislatures.
“This one in Nevada doesn’t even just demand that Congress do something. It says that the federal government has no say in any land and water rights discussion,” Goad said.
Already, the state’s oversight Legislative Counsel Bureau has called the bill “unconstitutional.”
The bureau underscored that the power of Congress to “prescribe rules and regulations concerning public lands entrusted to Congress is firmly entrenched, and ample authority exists upon which to invalidate state laws which conflict with federal laws concerning the management and control of federal public lands.”
Goad said Bundy and his supporters represented “an extremist take on the rights of the federal government in America right now.”
Their “sovereign citizen” movement insists “the law doesn’t apply to them,” she said.
Most state legislators have carefully couched language in similar bills to say they don’t want to get rid of public lands, just give the states more say in their management, Goad said.
But not in Nevada.
Activists worry that, if successful, the Silver State could embolden other legislatures in the West.
The brouhaha in rural Nevada kicked off last spring when the federal government sent armed agents to seize cattle they said Bundy was running in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, the habitat of the federally-protected desert tortoise.
After years of court battles in which a defiant Bundy argued that he did not recognize the rule of the federal government in the matter, and stopped paying allotted grazing fees in 1993, a federal judge ordered seizure of the animals, saying the rancher now owed $1 million in back fees.
But when agents moved in, Bundy was backed by an angry citizen militia, many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons. The federal government backed off, promising to pursue Bundy through the U.S. courts.
A small cadre of militia members still camp near Bundy’s spread, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, just to be sure.
Bundy said Monday that along with a chartered bus of activists, he expected carloads of supporters to arrive from Arizona, Utah, California and Nevada.
“We’re going to give them a piece of our mind,” he said.
Carol Bundy, the rancher’s wife, said Monday she too wanted to be part of the effort to “swarm” the Legislature.
She told The Times: “Somebody has to stay at home and manage the chores, feed the cows, and I guess that’s me.”