Is a rebellion brewing in Nevada?

  • 16 April 2014
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Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy addresses a crowd of protestors near his ranch on 12 April, 2014.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has rallied anti-government militias to his side in his confrontation with the federal government

A group of gun-wielding protestors squares off against a government it feels holds no authority. Is it Ukraine? Or Syria?

No, Nevada.

A standoff between a cattle rancher and the US government over grazing fees escalated into something akin to an armed confrontation over the weekend - and while threats of violence were defused, there appears to be no resolution in sight.

The story starts with the desert tortoise.

The Washington Post gives a full timeline of the events leading up to the confrontation, but here's the gist.

In 1993, in response to a dropping tortoise population, the federal government set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in southern Nevada as "protected tortoise habitat". The government prohibited off-road vehicles and mineral prospecting in the area and began buying out ranchers who were grazing their cattle in the designated areas.

They reached a deal with everyone except Cliven Bundy, whose family had been raising cattle on the south-east Nevada land at issue since 1890s.

The government responded by levying fines on Mr Bundy, which he hasn't paid, and getting a court order to remove his cattle from all federal land, which he has ignored.

On 27 March, more than two decades after the dispute first arose, the federal Bureau of Land Management began rounding up Mr Bundy's cattle with the intent to auction them off to pay his government fines, which have now reached $1.2m (£710,000).

Mr Bundy and his family have continued to resist. One of the sons, Dave, was arrested during a confrontation with federal law enforcement. Another, Ammon, was tasered after he kicked a police dog.

The video of the incident has served as a rallying cry for pro-Bundy protestors, many associated with right-wing militia groups. They have flocked to the Bundy ranch from across the region.

Some of the demonstrators were armed and threatened to block government action with force. One protestor said they had plans to put women and children at the front of the crowd so they would be among the first casualties if violence broke out.

On Saturday the government called off the cow-collecting operation and gave back the cows it had collected "because of serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public".

Federal law enforcement block a road in Nevada.
Federal officers block a road during an attempt to round up Cliven Bundy's cattle

The Las Vegas Review-Journal editors write that federal officials are "behaving like thugs loyal to a tin-pot dictator, not public servants who swore to support and defend the US Constitution".

They say that this dispute is about more than tortoises and grazing fees.

"It's about the power of environmentalists and their federal allies to erase a way of life they disagree with," they write. "It's about the federal government's control over most of the land in the West - and 86% of Nevada - and its inability to manage all that land in a competent and productive fashion."

They conclude:

No doubt plenty of city dwellers are laughing at the rubes in ranching country over their disgust with the federal government... But this desert drama is the just the latest front in the decades-long government assault on all of our rights. If we don't defend them, eventually we'll lose them. Then the joke will be on us.

The federal government employs both patriots and tyrants, writes Townhall finance editor John Ransom. Concerned citizens need to ask federal officials to pick sides.

"We have to make it make it clear to the bureaucrats that there are only two sides in the war the federal government is waging upon the rest of us," he says. "There is the right, and there is the wrong. And it's no longer sufficient to say you're just following orders."

Legally, writes Power Line Blog's John Hinderaker, Mr Bundy "doesn't have a leg to stand on". He argues that Americans like Mr Bundy deserve sympathy, however.

"Their way of life is one that, frankly, is on the outs," he says.

They don't develop apps. They don't ask for food stamps. It probably has never occurred to them to bribe a politician. They don't subsist by virtue of government subsidies or regulations that hamstring competitors. They aren't illegal immigrants. They have never even gone to law school. So what possible place is there for the Bundys in the Age of Obama?

This confrontation is not about freedom, the Constitution or some idealised rancher way of life, others argue. What is at issue here, they say, is a disturbing precedent set by Mr Bundy's continued flouting of legal authority.

What happens next, wonders the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Steve Sebelius.

"A court order that's not enforced by the federal government is simply another piece of paper," he writes. "It's entirely likely ... that the government will once again face off with Bundy and his militia gang, and that the threat of violence will once again rear its head."

Dallas Hyland writes in Utah's St George News that this could be the start of a growing trend:

The stand-down was necessary to prevent bloodshed, but it must be recognized that if Bundy and a multitude of his supporters, militia friends, and even family members who broke the law, are allowed to go unpunished, anarchy will follow. Other groups, emboldened by the appearance of forcing a stand-down, will only continue to gain momentum. And furthermore, law enforcement as a whole will be rendered impotent as average people with disputes with current laws begin to wonder if they too can call a militia in to force the police to leave them alone.

The pro-Bundy camp is claiming victory for now, but the federal government is not throwing in the towel.

"It's not over," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "We can't have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it."

As tanks roll through eastern Ukraine, is a rebellion brewing in Nevada?