A couple of ripe adages pigeonhole the infamous Cliven Bundy and his militant offspring, those Nevada ranchers who have dominated headlines of late: ‘like father like son’ and ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ Bundy, you will recall, grabbed 2014 headlines by precipitating an armed standoff with federal authorities over a 20-year legal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by refusing to pay more than $1 million in fines for non-payment of grazing fees.
Bundy had claimed the land belonged to the state of Nevada, saying at the time “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” This past weekend, Bundy’s son Ammon and a handful of far-right militants led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, ostensibly as a protest over the prison sentencing of two Oregon ranchers who admittedly set fires to public lands. However, on Sunday, Ammon Bundy told reporters that they were there to fight “unconstitutional transactions of land rights and water rights” whatever that might mean.
Bundy describes his battle with the feds as a fight to subsist: “The people cannot survive without their land and resources…We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point that it puts us in poverty.” Ironically, as FiveThirtyEightPolitcs noted: “ranchers get a great deal from the Bureau of Land Management on grazing.” In fact, the government is using its clout to lower costs for ranchers:
“the bureau’s fees for grazing were 93 percent cheaper than the average market rate in 16 Western states ($1.35 versus $20.10 per AUM, which is a fancy acronym for the amount of land needed to support a cow and her calf for a month).”
One of the reasons the BLM’s fees are so much lower is precisely because its fees are not subject to free-market supply and demand. The bureau sets its national grazing fees a “flat national rate and can’t be adjusted to match demand in the local markets.”
If the land was turned back over to the public, it would almost certainly be instantly bought by multinational corporations like the Koch Industries that would plunder the land of its resources and leave it barren, which is why groups like the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity supported the Bundys in the first place. As Truthout.com noted:
That’s the ironic thing about the militia movement. Despite all its rage against corrupt government, American decline, and the elites, in the end, the only people who benefit from its fight against “big government” are the same people who are already destroying our country – the billionaires and the oligarchs. To put it bluntly, the militias are the useful idiots of the one percent.
So the issue as described by Bundy was really not about the Hammonds – the father and son sentenced to prison for setting fires to public lands several years ago. The Hammonds (who admitted igniting the blazes) noted in a letter from their lawyer W. Alan Schroeder to the county sheriff: “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family.”
In the end, Bundy described the federal building as:
“the people’s facility, owned by the people” and said his group was occupying it to take “a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources…It is the duty of the people to put that government back in its place…That’s what we, the people, are doing here…the occupiers intended to be at the refuge for months, if not years…the militants would help adjudicate claims on federal land.”
The Bundys claim their ancestors worked the land before the BLM even existed. So it is not a matter of the fact that grazing fees from the BLM are ‘a steal’ unless in some perverse, bizarre, and twisted idea of property rights, like the Bundys, “you think the government is trying to charge you for what’s rightfully yours” – which isn’t theirs, and actually belongs to Native Americans if you really want to break down the brass tax.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.