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Washington Insight: The Sagebrush Rebellion lives on with Bundy dispute

Published April 21, 2014 11:19 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • The anger boiling over in the Nevada rancher dispute with federal authorities isn't a newfound phenomenon. And it isn't isolated.

The Bureau of Land Management halted an effort this month to round up cattle that rancher Cliven Bundy had allowed to graze without a legal permit for the last two decades. He owes more than $1 million in grazing fees and penalties, according to the bureau, which, armed with a federal court order, seized some 300 cows to be sold at auction.

That's when echoes of the Sagebrush Rebellion kicked in.

An angry force of men and women on horseback, some armed, some carrying U.S. and Don't Tread on Me flags, descended on a wash last weekend in southern Nevada to demand the release of the cattle. A picture by former Salt Lake Tribune photographer Jim Urquhart for Reuters captured a man in sniper position on a nearby freeway bridge aiming a semi-automatic rifle at federal authorities.

"You're going to have to arrest us all, or shoot us all," one man yells on a video posted by InfoWars.

"Go back to Washington. Go back to China. Scumbags," another guy taunts.

"The West has finally been won," a sign off the overpass declared after the BLM backed off.

The visceral hatred of the federal government harbored by some in the Intermountain West is one reason the tea-party movement found such fertile ground there, and why legislators enjoy public support when demanding transfer of all public lands to the respective states.

Washington, to some folks in the West, is a distant bureaucracy that knows nothing and cares less about the people who have made a living off the desert scrubland. While one poll found the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument enjoys wide support in Utah, there are still pockets of serious discontent.

There's a reason President Ronald Reagan chose a meeting of the Future Farmers of America to declare that the 10 scariest words in the English language are, "Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Reagan backed the Sagebrush Rebellion in a 1980 campaign speech in Salt Lake City, calling himself a rebel for the cause. That movement was prompted by, among other things, concern about the rights of ranchers to graze livestock on public lands as they had for generations. And it involved states seeking — even suing — to take over federal lands for their own purposes. The effort may have calmed with Reagan's presidency but it never died.

Pew Research Center polls show that while Republicans, in particular those who align with the tea party, are angry at government under the Obama administration, the West isn't angrier than other regions. But how the West manifests that anger is rather unique.

In a protest against the BLM's delayed decision on whether to allow ATVs in now-off-limits Recapture Canyon, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman is urging enthusiasts to disregard the law and take motorized vehicles into the canyon next month. This same scenario has played out many times in Utah, with some officials facing fines for breaking laws they don't agree with.

As Bundy points out in his public appearances, his family grazed cattle long before the BLM even existed, and he doesn't recognize the federal government's authority over the lands his forefathers claimed.

There are many, though, who are concerned about the palpable anger. The BLM backed off the cattle roundup sensing a disastrous outcome, but the court order — signed by a federal judge nominated by Bush — is still in effect.

When I sat down with Gov. Gary Herbert last week at his Washington, D.C., hotel, he had just met with top BLM officials to make clear that he didn't want the cattle in question to be auctioned off in Utah if there was a future enforcement action. He had sent a letter the week prior outlining the same point.

"I told them what happens in Nevada with the BLM should stay in Nevada," Herbert told me, referencing the overused Las Vegas tourism line. "We don't need the problem exported to Utah, and that's just a common-sense position."

But Herbert also expressed concern about the face-off between armed federal agents and the armed militia that swooped in to help Bundy's cause.

"Any time we have people who pledge allegiance to the flag — Americans looking across the way to other Americans that are trying to do their duty, and they both have weapons and it's a tinderbox that could flash at any moment, that's an unfortunate situation," the governor said.

A Facebook page with nearly 46,000 supporters for Bundy's fight notes that the effort is "not done yet."

"We will continue to help fight this tyranny," a post reads. "We need to set up protests EVERYWHERE. We need to find those ranchers, farmers, miners [etc.]. Anybody being bullied by the Feds, and we need to help them like we helped the Bundys."

The Sagebrush Rebellion lives on.

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Burr reports from Washington, D.C., for The Salt Lake Tribune. He can be reached at tburr@sltrib.com or via Twitter @thomaswburr.