The Bundy Bonanza: Fact and fiction in the west


Photo Credit: Colorado Guy

The cowboy west is full of ironies, half-truths and exaggerated myth. It’s filled with stories of good guys and bad guys, small, hard scrabble farmers and cattle barons; it’s the fertile ground where law battles the lawless, where wealth is made and dreams are dashed. It’s part of the allure of the west. It’s thrilling to be a part of, and audience to, a grand theater filled with dramatic action, and we lap it up.

The truth, on the other hand, is more like dust that settles after the scuffle has ended. It is no less entertaining but it doesn’t capture the imagination like myth and legend does and so those looking for a cause, looking for something to get mad about or to become a hero over, dismiss the truth in favor of fiction. It is more fun after all. Who doesn’t like to sit around a campfire and spin yarns about shadowy government agents out to get the little guy? Talking about over-due grazing fees and court proceedings is just life.

Nowhere is this happening more prolifically than at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

The greatest irony of the rag-tag, rebel rousing cowboy revolt coming out of Bunkerville, Nevada, is that they are displaying the very reason the government has had to step in and regulate time and again. Like being able to hit rewind and go back in history, we are seeing in real time how the laws and places that are so contentious today were created by people just like the Bundys and their cohorts.

The Malheur Wildlife Refuge was set aside by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 to protect bird species that were being over-hunted and reaching extinction levels. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid hunter, and a romantic about ranching. But he was also ethical and a firm believer in the law. He is the president that brought about the National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and laws such as the Antiquities Act. The reason he did this was two-fold: 1. He knew that without government regulation people would not self-regulate, and 2. He believed we have a moral obligation to ensure resources exist for future generations.

He knew that if you kill everything, there will be nothing left to hunt and that if you destroy something, it will be gone forever. Thus, conservation and preservation were born.

The creation of the BLM came about for those reasons as well. Ranchers of sheep and cattle could not self-regulate or get along, much like the Bundys today, and asked the government to intercede. Over-grazing was decimating the range and they knew this in the 1800s. Thus, the BLM was created to regulate grazing and to ensure that it happened equally and fairly.

The Antiquities Act was created for much the same reason. Many people had no respect for ancient cultures or artifacts and were stealing, selling, and destroying these artifacts of antiquity at an alarming rate. Teddy Roosevelt was an educated man and believed in preserving these antiquities for science and education. He saw them as cultural and national treasures.

The irony is that the Malheur Wildlife Refuge has both antiquities (to say nothing of the fact that it is considered a sacred site by the Paiute Indians) and wildlife in abundance. Ryan Bundy showed he had no respect for ancient artifacts or other cultures when he led his illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon in Blanding, Utah, but he has sealed his sectarian and arrogant stance in Oregon by stating:

Cattle ranchers and loggers should have priority when it comes to land use. Before white man came, so to speak, there was nothing to keep cattle from tromping on those things. We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim. There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important.”

Funny enough, white man brought the cattle and ranchers, like the Native Americans Bundy referred to, no longer have sole claim to the land – but beside the fact, this is the crux of the Bundy Bonanza:

The Bundys believe they are a special class that deserves special treatment. They believe their rights take precedent over everyone else. They want the land for themselves, continued to be paid for by the American people, so that they can continue their way of life unhindered by rules, regulations, fair play, fees, ethics, or personal responsibility. In other words, they are like spoiled children who will throw a temper tantrum if they don’t get their way.

If you look back through history and wipe away the dust and cobwebs, what you find is that more often than not, laws, rules, regulations, and policies were implemented for good reasons. Some stand the test of time and some don’t. Land management agencies in particular were created to enforce laws governing public land and are bureaucracies beholden to those rules, regulations, policies, and laws set forth by Congress.

Federal employees work for the government and are meant to objectively do their jobs to fulfill mandates set forth by the government. It is not their job to be friends with individuals or to do their bidding at the expense of policies they are required to enforce. Federal employees are not public servants like politicians are; they are civil servants.

Many people working for land management agencies come from ranching and farming backgrounds and are sympathetic to rural concerns. Most are just average citizens trying to do their jobs. It is sickening to hear supporters of the Hammonds and the Bundys decry the injustices done to these “good, rural ranching families” while ignoring the vigilante threats, intimidation, and violence perpetrated by the very same “good, rural ranching families” against federal employees who also happen to be good American people with families.

The Hammonds (and Bundys for that matter) have decades of criminal behavior and law breaking behind them. To only look at the charges brought against them and for which they were convicted is to look through a very narrow scope. It is called cherry picking and selective fact finding and typically is used when engaging in confirmation bias. Looking through that narrow view ignores the whole picture that adds up to 45,000 acres of arson and lawbreaking over a 30 year period.

If we only looked at Al Capone’s tax evasion charge we could easily make the case that the government unjustly went after him too, but we all know he committed many crimes and broke the law for years before being charged and convicted of anything.

In looking at similar arson cases across the west it is clear that a five year sentence is not only consistent with other cases, but is at the low end of sentencing. Other cases reveal charges ranging from two years to the death penalty. People who think the Hammonds have been unjustly charged do not know their history, don’t know fire, and don’t know about other arson cases or who has also been charged.

This may be shocking to those who believe land management agencies are biased against ranchers, but many arsonists charged and convicted were federal employees working for land management agencies. They did not get a pass because they worked for the government. For a case in point, a wildland firefighter who did a prescribed burn without authorization got charged and sentenced to two years in prison.

On the other end of the spectrum, an arsonist in California got the death penalty because a wildland fire crew died trying to put out the blaze. Whether it’s for a firefighting paycheck or for green grass to improve grazing, arson is a real and violent crime. You cannot control the climate, weather, or landscape that fuels fire behavior and makes it dangerous and hard to control.

Laws dealing with arson have evolved with the culture. While burning used to be considered acceptable in the past when the land was less populated, it is now considered a threatening and expensive crime. In other words, it’s not victimless. It costs considerable amounts of money (money that comes from the taxpayers) to put the fire down and to protect homes and residences, to say nothing of the threat to and/or loss of resources, life, and safety.

The fact of the matter is, the old west is lashing out at the new west and they are doing it in the same way that they have been doing it for a century. Bullying, intimidation, and law breaking are as much a part of the culture as cows and cowboy hats. This stunt in Oregon is not being done for the ideals these people purport, for constitutional principles or American values. It’s simply motivated by delusional dreams of heroism, greed, and self-interest.

The people who are really concerned with their way of life and their traditions are doing it through cooperation, the right channels, and by the law. These people understand the complexities of this land, that it is a melting pot of people, cultures, and ideas and know that there must be an equal and fair balance among them. There are bad eggs in every group including government. When bureaucracies screw up there is legal recourse available, government oversight, and many layers of checks and balances to keep them in check. Land management agencies have lost many cases in court.

Smart people accept things as they are and work within reality. They do not over-simplify complicated issues into value-laden, emotional appeals driven by self-interest or ideology. The drama unfolding in the west right now is the age-old struggle between fact and fiction, desire and reality, the past and future. Facts might not be as exciting as fiction but they are relevant and there for all to see.

What the Bundys and their merry band of patriotic posers need to realize is that striking at the heel of the government without the moral high ground is a fools errand. If your revolution does not inspire the nation and its just you and your buddies huddled over a fire patting each other on the backs while pleading for snacks, chances are your cause is yours alone. The garbled, half-cocked constitutionese used to appeal to “We the people” has a major blind spot and it’s the other side of that coin.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The government is us; we are the government, you and I. No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.”

We are the people and we are the government and public land belongs to us all, managed for various reasons by laws enacted by Congress and the President who were elected by us, backed up by the courts to be enforced by land management agencies that again, were created by Congress. It is not a conspiracy, it is law and history, enacted, shaped, and forged by the citizens of this country. And it is knowable.

The west may be filled with legend and lore, but at the core is the truth. Wyatt Earp, arguably one of the greatest legends of the west, was a real person who brought law and justice to lawless cowboys in a lawless west. What is happening today is, in many ways, not much different.

While we have advanced beyond shootouts at the O.K. Corral (hopefully), the theme today is much the same. It boils down to a struggle between law and lawlessness in the epic battle for the west and its mad march onward.



Posted on January 22, 2016, in Nature and the Environment, Politics & Argumentation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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