LAS VEGAS, NV — Ahead of Tuesday night’s Republican caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz is attempting to win over Nevada voters by channelling the state’s recently indicted rogue rancher and Oregon occupation instigator Cliven Bundy.
“Eighty percent of the state of Nevada is owned by the federal government. That is going to end,” he told hundreds of supporters in Henderson on Sunday night, standing in front of a banner depicting a mountain range with bold red letters reading, ‘RETURN OUR LAND.’
“The land of Nevada needs to be owned by the state of Nevada,” Cruz told the crowd, “or even better, the people of Nevada.”
On Monday, when he delivered the same speech to a crowd of wealthy retirees in the posh suburb of Summerlin, Las Vegas resident Vinny Spotleson stood up and challenged him, saying that most Nevadans, including a majority of Republicans, want public land to stay public. The crowd booed Spotleson as he was escorted out of the venue by security officers, but he told ThinkProgress he thinks Cruz’s message might “backfire” Tuesday night.
“Trump is the only candidate to come out against privatizing public land, and he’s expected to win here,” he noted. “And even though Cruz has distanced himself from Cliven Bundy, he continues to have the same political objectives as Cliven Bundy, to take all the land away from the public and put it in private hands. When they talk about ‘opening up’ federal land, they’re not talking about everyone being able to enjoy the outdoors. It’s because they want to sell it off to oil drilling and fracking and mining. Just look at what happened in Cruz’s own state of Texas, where so much land has been auctioned off and they’re drilling all over. We don’t want to see that here.”
Spotleson, who used to work for the Sierra Club and is currently running for the Nevada State Assembly, said he fears Cruz’s proposal would threaten everything he values about his home state.
“Visitors here just see the casinos and the downtown areas, but growing up in Nevada, it’s all about our public lands, enjoying hiking, camping, fishing, rock climbing, and hunting,” he said. “A lot of us locals really cherish that.”
Spotleson is a Democrat, but Nevada Republicans also told ThinkProgress they take issue with Cruz’s call for land privatization, and are “embarrassed” by the association with the Bundys’ cause.
Las Vegas resident Ralph Morales, who owns a cattle ranch in Alamo, Nevada, said he was frustrated with Cruz for “not telling the truth.”
“The reality is that the federal government doesn’t own the property, they manage it for the rest of us, because we ask them to. It’s called the Bureau of Land Management,” he stressed. “Believe it or not, they’re doing us a favor. We’re talking about a lot of vast lands. I’m not going to buy it. I sure as hell don’t want to. So it just sits there, and what do we do with it? Do we give it to the states? No. We already have a big enough budget as it is. We don’t have enough money to take care of a lot of open land.”
Peering out from under the wide brim of a black cowboy hat, Morales said he appreciates that under current law, any time the federal government wants to sell off a piece of land, “they actually have to ask the American people and Congress.” While he agrees with the Bundys’ call for cattle ranchers to have more grazing rights on federal land, he says the family that participated in two armed standoffs with the federal government “were wrong in what they did.”
Morales plans to caucus on Tuesday night for Trump, who has said he wants to “keep the lands great,” adding, “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.” Cruz has gone after Trump in TV ads and on Twitter in the lead-up to the caucuses, saying, “Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge. That’s ridiculous.”
Cruz has also aligned himself with Nevada Assembly member Michele Fiore, a major supporter of the Bundys’ armed occupations who has introduced a bill to allow Nevada to seize federal lands. Though Cruz has denounced the Bundys’ past racist remarks and called for them to “stand down” in Oregon, Fiore remains a key member of his campaign’s Nevada leadership team.
But even die-hard Cruz supporters, like Henderson resident Lisa, who declined to give her last name, said they were less than enthusiastic about his connection with the Bundys.
“It’s been a little bit embarrassing when people back East have asked me if I agree with those people, because I’m not so sure I do,” she said. Describing herself as “a little bit neutral” on the federal land issue, Lisa told ThinkProgress, “I was surprised when I moved here that 80 percent of the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government, but there may be good reasons for that.”
One of those reasons, critics argue, is that privatizing Nevada’s vast public lands would deal a severe blow to the state’s economy. Outdoor recreation in Nevada, which relies almost exclusively on access to national public lands, contributes an estimated $14.9 billion in consumer spending every year and supports 148,000 jobs in the state.
Hunters and fishers worry too that plans to seize federal land would lock them out of the habitats they can currently access. “These game-rich areas that currently belong to all of us will be developed or sold to large corporations, degrading critical habitat and locking out millions of sportsmen,” the magazine Field and Stream cautioned last year. “I can’t help but think that if Theodore Roosevelt could see the current scam being peddled to American sportsmen he’d be fighting mad.”