Too Close to a Green Waco

Bundy Militia Response in Nevada

This last week we came too close to another Waco that, this time, would have included the cattle industry, BLM, as well as conservationists. It would have been a bad incident to repeat. It would have been a bad incident for conservationists to be involved in. It was too close. But the precedent it sets is even worse.

Cliven Bundy is a Nevada rancher who in 1993 decided to stop paying for permits to allow his private cattle to range on public lands. Since that time he’s continued to graze 700 head of cattle on public land and increasing the area of their grazing, both while refusing to pay roughly $16 a year per cow for the privilege of grazing his cattle. He’s been found guilty of doing so in three different court prosecutions.

Saturday, April 5, wranglers and Federal authorities began seizing and removing his illegal cattle. On Wednesday, April 9, friends and family as well as armed militants began arriving near Mesquite, Nevada in protest of the federal action. As a result of these escalating tensions, the US government retreated on Sunday, April 13. Christi Turner‘s article in HCN.org is a great place to read more.

What is disconcerting about this conflict is that it’s centered within an environmental landscape. More than one opinion is comparing the incident to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 60s and 70s, in which many–including President Ronald Reagan–opposed federal management of public lands.

The ‘spotted owl’ in this coal mine happens to be the desert tortoise. I’ve worked a bit with tortoises while living in Tucson, Arizona. Their habitat needs are indeed sensitive. And cattle have the potential of being especially destructive to certain environments. And a conspiracy that surfaced seeming to split people on the issue I heard as far away as Arkansas was that the desert tortoise was being used as an excuse in this situation to pave the way for fracking. Truth is, fracking will happen with or without tortoises and cows.

Why are all these communities becoming embroiled in such a poor representation of the ideals they value?

Cliven Bundy is by his own admission and the express opinion of 3 court decisions defying the federal government over the same permits with which every other rancher must comply. Even Bundy’s neighbors say he’s no bastion of American freedom (here). Recently highlighted collaboration between the cattle industry and conservation (here) deserves far more attention than does the Bundy family.

The ranching community is a positive and valuable part of American history and culture. Most Second Amendment and gun rights advocates, like ranchers, are also upstanding, law abiding and reasonable members of their community. Conservationists are by their mission fighting for a higher ideal. All of these would also do well to select a more reasonable and irreproachable representative than Bundy.

The militia arbitrarily joined a criminal in armed resistance against the US government . There is now evidence of citizens aiming firearms at federal officers (like here), who retreat for the peace, and those people going free for all the world to see. This only further stereotypes and damns the reputation of Second Amendment advocates in our country. To my knowledge, the NRA has remained wisely silent this time.

The Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) has effectively acted as a catalyst in this situation. Their concern has been lack of BLM progress in protecting the habitat of the desert tortoise in the area. The CBD’s preservation strategy and capacity is to file lawsuits at the drop of a hat. CBD apparently incited this BLM’s roundup of Bundy’s cattle with an intent to sue a year ago (here) and a press release (here).

The political tension and partisan divisiveness in our country is not the place for a strategy of increased divisiveness by conservationists. We must be the ones in the middle if we are to draw all parties to the table, and the CBD is beginning to seem as reactionary as Cliven Bundy. There are bigger things at stake.

The US government did the right thing in literally disarming a situation quickly becoming out of control. But it’s far from over. If there’s any clearer heads involved, I would expect what should have happened in the first place:

  • BLM officials should be held responsible for this mismanagement,
  • The US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution should be asked to engage the community,
  • Federal prosecuters should work toward the imminent arrest and judicial treatment of Cliven Bundy and all those involved in armed resistence.

In one video the person recording the procession of Bundy supporters on horseback says, “This is how the West was won.” In fact, the West was won by a lot of people dying. Most of them innocent and murdered in the heat of the moment over something no one can really remember clearly. If this kind of violence is going to erupt, conservationists would do well to find themselves elsewhere in something that matters.

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