Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is being portrayed by some as a man of principle, an iconoclast who should be admired for his willingness to stand up to the federal government. But in fact he’s a petty scofflaw who seems to think that he has the right to pick and choose which rules must be obeyed.
Bundy is the cattleman who grazes his herd on federal land operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but unlike more than 15,000 other ranchers, he refuses to pay the associated grazing fees. After 20 years of disagreements and court battles, the U.S. government began rounding up his cattle this month. The rancher and a group of armed supporters confronted the federal authorities, leading to a standoff; the authorities withdrew.
Bundy justifies his stingy and illegal behavior with a variety of claims. One is that this is a states’ rights issue and that he doesn’t “recognize” the federal government. Another is that his family grazed the land long before it came under the jurisdiction of the BLM.
Actually, more than 70 percent of the land in Nevada is federally owned, including the land in question; the state Constitution recognized that ownership years before Bundy’s ancestors arrived, despite his assertion otherwise. (Various reports also have cast serious doubt on whether his family was grazing cattle on the land as long ago as he claims.) For that matter, if prior use of land were all that was needed to avoid paying a landlord, the land would revert back not to Bundy but to the control of Native Americans, who were on the Nevada land long before any white settlement of the area.
Despite his professed disbelief in the U.S. government, Bundy brought his case in federal court, so apparently he does recognize the federal government when he thinks he might gain something from it. But the courts repeatedly ruled against him. Which makes Bundy more of a bad loser than a folk hero. He would surely have insisted that the court rulings be followed if they had gone in his favor.
Bundy and his band of armed supporters are declaring victory after the standoff, and now the fringe groups that support him are talking about using these same tactics elsewhere.
The feds were wise to back down rather than allow Bundy to provoke a gunfight over his 400 head of cattle. Still, the U.S. government cannot let the matter rest there. It must return and enforce the rules. The message to the would-be Bundys of the nation must be that willful violation of laws passed by Congress and the state of Nevada and upheld by the courts will not be tolerated.