BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — The first thing you see on the drive to Cliven Bundy's ranch are the American flags — tied to roadside guardrails, flapping in a hard desert wind.
At a bend in state Route 170 sits the so-called Patriot Checkpoint, evidence of the tense power play raging between the rebellious 67-year-old cattleman and the federal government.
Then there are the guns. Scores of grim citizen militiamen in combat fatigues — semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders, ammunition magazines at their belts — patrol from a base they call Camp Tripwire.
"State sovereignty is what we're fighting for," reads a sign strung to a fence. And another: "The West has now been won!"
Bundy's private war, a decades-long court battle with the Bureau of Land Management over his cattle grazing on public land, recently took a decidedly populist turn: When armed federal agents moved to oversee the roundup of hundreds of Bundy's cattle across half a million acres managed by the BLM, some Americans sat up wide-eyed before their televisions and computer screens.
The government says that Bundy owes $1 million in fees for letting his cattle graze in the Gold Butte area. Still, the get-tough tactic became a clarion call for those who see the federal government as arrogant and bloated. Suddenly, truck drivers, pizza deliverymen and ex-cops from as far away as New Hampshire and Georgia converged upon this unincorporated ranching town.
The self-described "citizen soldiers" arrived venting a smoldering anger and wielding AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. Days later, the government called off the roundup and released 350 of Bundy's cattle back onto public land.
Two weeks later, some Bundy supporters remain bivouacked here, celebrating what they call the Battle of Bunkerville. They're gritty, unshaven men, some with their wives, who refer to themselves as "we the people," voicing gripes about Obamacare and lax federal immigration policy.
Bundy has his critics, but to supporters, his case is a symbol of everything wrong with America. Never mind that other ranchers pay the fees Bundy says he can avoid because his ancestors settled the area before the federal government stepped in.
The face-off is reminiscent of civil disobedience popularized during the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought greater local control in 12 Western states where the federal government administers 60% of the land. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the land.
At Camp Tripwire, the militia members talk of deadly antigovernment clashes at Idaho's Ruby Ridge and at Waco, Texas. "We showed up so there's no slaughter like Ruby Ridge," said a man who called himself Mark, a 60-year-old from New Mexico dressed in fatigues, with a handgun strapped to his leg.
"A blind chimp can see this is a bad situation. But we're not wackos. We're here as defenders, trying to do what's right in our hearts," he said.
Two weeks ago, he arrived at a scene that he said brought tears to his eyes: "Americans, refusing to cow to the federal government, blindly, like cattle. They were taking a stand."
In Washington, the standoff has divided lawmakers along party lines.
Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator and the Senate majority leader, branded Bundy's militia "domestic terrorists," while the state's other senator, Republican Dean Heller, called them "patriots."
Other Republicans say Bundy highlights what they regard as federal overreach, such as presidents designating public land for national monuments without consulting local officials.
"Remember, the federal government works for the people. It doesn't feel like that out West," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "It's not just about Mr. Bundy. A lot of people can relate to what is happening, even though they probably disagree with somebody who wants to run cattle on public land without a permit."
He says many Western ranchers think Washington doesn't understand or care about them: "It isn't long before shots will be fired."
Bob Abbey, a former BLM director, said public angst goes beyond Bundy. "I do think there is a segment of our population in the United States that feels disenfranchised," he said.
But, he added, "Mr. Bundy is not a victim by any means."
Bundy's public image fell this week after his pointed comments about African Americans and social welfare, suggesting that "the Negro" was made dependent by government programs. He told the New York Times that "I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
The denunciations were immediate. Heller "completely disagrees with Bundy's appalling and racist statements and condemns them in the most strenuous way," his office said. Reid calls Bundy a hateful racist.
Bundy's wife, Carol, on Thursday defended her husband. "What he was saying is that there are lots of different forms of slavery. Welfare is one kind. It's just another way to suppress people."
The citizen cowboys protecting Bundy's ranch remain undeterred. "His statements were not a criticism of blacks. They criticized the federal government," said Brandon Rapolla, a concrete mixer from Oregon who spent eight days at the ranch. "I've met the Bundys, and that's not who they are."
In Nevada, the prolonged standoff has alienated many, including the Nevada Cattlemen's Assn., which says the matter is between Bundy and the courts. That's the advice of Patrick Shea, a former BLM director. The government, he said, should be patient, put a lien on Bundy's cattle and not "create these made-for-television dramas."
Ray Schmalz, a Colorado visitor, says Bundy is simply selfish. The roundup threatened to close a public area where Schmalz rides his all-terrain vehicle. "If he owes grazing fees, he needs to pay them. He's raping the system. And that militia with him are just rebels, showing off with their guns," he said.
Historians say Bundy's followers will eventually find a new rallying cause.
"The tea party and everyone else is tapping into the anger of people [who] feel like outsiders to a federal government they do not control," said Michael Green, a historian at the College of Southern Nevada. "After Cliven Bundy, someone else will come along. With the Internet and 24/7 news channels, there will always be something new to rally people."
The Camp Tripwire sentry covered his eyes from a wind-whipped blast of sand. A rotund man from Arizona in full military field regalia, he carried several weapons and a walkie-talkie. "Post to base," he said. "There's a visitor who wants to enter."
Given the approval, he barked: "OK. Over and out."
He turned, snapping: "Go directly to the blue tent. Do not stop to talk to anyone." Asked about his rifle propped against a chair, he softened: "The Bundys don't want us carrying them around. But I'm not supposed to tell anybody that. I'll get in trouble."
Camp commander Jerry DeLemus, who drove 41 hours from New Hampshire with a yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag, had his hands full — directing armed sentries, storing supplies, leading a morning prayer session. At 59, he's an ex-Marine, self-employed contractor, born-again Christian, Harley-Davidson motorcyclist and National Rifle Assn. member.
"All of us out here, we're Americans," he said, a .45-caliber handgun at his side. "Just like you."
He explained the post's name — Camp Tripwire. "If anyone comes here to do anything bad, they're going to trip on us," he said. "It doesn't mean we're going to stop them, but we'll slow them down."
Who knows how long he'll stay. "My wife asks the same question," he said. "People have lost jobs. But I still can't pry 'em out of here."
Nearby, at the Bundy ranch, the mood was less accommodating. "Hey, where you going?" men in fatigues shouted when a visitor tried to enter the Bundy house. "Nobody just walks in here."
Inside, Carol Bundy looked on sheepishly, later sending an apologetic text message: "We have just had an overwhelming amount of media here and the militia is getting protective."
Later, Cliven Bundy sat with supporters under a mesquite tree at the Patriot Checkpoint, with a box of pocket-sized Constitutions on a nearby table.
He spoke softly, like a leader at a prayer meeting. Since the roundup ended, he said he has refused to even open five certified letters from the BLM. "I've challenged the federal government's authority," he said. "That's why they want to kill Cliven Bundy."
Surrounded daily by guards, he admitted his rancher's life had become a fishbowl existence. "I'd hate to have this militia here for the rest of my life," he said. "But I sure do want them here today."