Cliven Bundy’s Neverending War

Rancher Cliven Bundy speaking to supporters in 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
Rancher Cliven Bundy speaking to supporters in 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

A year and a half after television news crews departed Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch, the revolution he hoped to spark against federal stewardship of public lands is still going. But it’s hard to say it’s going strong.

The armed men who descended on Bundy’s ranch amid a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that spring have since boasted of creating a situation where “if they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would’ve died.” They left Nevada with Bundy still a free man who owes taxpayers about a million dollars in unpaid fees for his use of public lands. He remains free today, and his fines — larger than the combined fee and fine debts of every other rancher who owes the BLM money — are still unpaid nearly two years later.

Given how much attention Bundy won for successfully reclaiming his cattle and continuing to avoid his comeuppance, it’s little wonder the Bundy episode has spawned a tiny but energetic movement. Fueled by anti-government conspiracy theories and buoyed by radical gun groups that often have ties to white supremacism, Bundy’s adherents have sought out renewed confrontations with federal agents over land use issues in multiple states. Bundy’s son Ammon is leading the latest provocation in Oregon as the new year begins. But considered alongside the timeline of events since the Nevada standoff, the Malheur Lake episode looks more like the flailing of a movement in decline than the stirrings of a new revolution.

MAY 2014 — Recapture Canyon, UT

Fresh off their success in preserving Bundy’s fee-flouting business practices, and invigorated by the drama of an actual armed standoff of the sort law enforcement is thusfar declining to provide in Malheur Lake, the land seizure movement’s miniature army looked for new chances to provoke the feds.

They only had to wait a few weeks.

The seven-mile length of Recapture Canyon in southeastern Utah has been closed to vehicles since 2007 after federal land management officials decided its wealth of archaeological sites would be put at unacceptable risk from continued heavy traffic. But in May of 2014, a group of land-transfer radicals led by the local County Commissioner rode a convoy of all-terrain vehicles through the canyon in defiance of the BLM’s policy.


Some of the same armed resistors who flocked to the Bundy property en masse showed up to ride along, at the behest of Carol Bundy. “This is your next stand. Will you be there to help them like you helped us?” she wrote in an email to supporters. As in Oregon today, officials monitored the situation but declined to provide the vigilantes with an opportunity to point guns at them.

Several of the riders have since been charged, though four separate federal judges recused themselves from presiding over their trials for misdemeanor violations of BLM rules. Phil Lyman, the county official who helmed the ride, got 10 days in jail and a $96,000 restitution fine.

APRIL 2015 — Sugar Pine Mine, OR

The Bundy bunch had to wait much longer for the next headline-grabbing skirmish in their would-be war. In April of 2015, Rick Barclay and George Backes solicited armed support to ward off BLM agents from their Sugar Pine Mine in southwestern Oregon. A local sheriff and a BLM enforcement officer had showed up to serve them with an order to cease mining for gold and remove the surface structures they had built at Sugar Pine because the activities violated federal regulations.

Barclay and Backes disagree, on similar grounds to the theories that underlie the broader argument for stripping federal authority over public lands everywhere else. “The miners assert that pre-1955 mining claims somehow give them title to the surface and immunity from federal public land and environmental law,” mining law expert Roger Flynn told GOOD magazine at the time. “Such an unfounded legal argument would be quickly rejected by any court.”


Barclay and Backes asked local members of the Oath Keepers to come secure the property against BLM agents who might try to tear down their structures, while denying they sought to create a standoff or a shooting fight with the government. Weeks later, the two formally asked for a court order to bar BLM from tampering with the physical infrastructure on their claim until the legal battle over jurisdiction is fully resolved. At that point, Barclay and Backes asked the armed men to clear out.

AUGUST 2015 — White Hope Mine, MT

Last August in Montana, Bundy’s fellow travelers ginned up another showdown with authorities. As with the Sugar Pine Mine dispute, the claimants to the White Hope Mine in the remote central region of Montana called on the Oath Keepers for help after law enforcement officials deemed their construction and road-blocks on the site to be illegal. And as with the Sugar Pine situation, the armed responders to the miners’ call publicly stressed that they did not want an open confrontation with the feds but rather to protect their property until a court granted the miners a stay pending the full resolution of their case.

What Happens Now?

The present activities of militiamen in southeast Oregon are only the latest episode in an ongoing campaign to use shows of physical force to stymie federal land management rules.

Assessing the campaign’s momentum isn’t easy. On the one hand, they’ve managed to create something of a drumbeat of confrontations with the government where the threat of physical violence is used to prevent BLM agents from enforcing the law on public lands. But on the other, the Bundy Ranch showdown remains the land seizure movement’s high-water mark in public relations terms.


Despite that community’s repeated attempts to provoke a repeat of those tense few days, most recently in the non-standoff standoff at Malheur Lake, the trajectory of their efforts is downward. Perhaps the clearest evidence of the group’s apparent decline comes from Oregon itself, where fully 300 rallied in support of the Hammonds but fewer than 20 have reportedly heeded Bundy’s call to take over a public wildlife preserve. The Hammonds themselves did not want the form of support Bundy was offering.

The real guts of the land seizure campaign aren’t nearly as sexy. State lawmakers around the western U.S. have introduced dozens of bills seeking to chip away at public lands law and restore those vast expanses to state and local control.

Despite the militiamen’s high-profile success at keeping Bundy free in Nevada, the pen really is mightier. The legislative side of the land seizure network hasn’t been able to roll back federal land law directly just yet. But they’re building the foundation for a potentially long-running campaign to make it much easier to sell the nation’s wide-open spaces off industrial interests and erode the rules protecting those places from exploitation.

But before they can convert that groundwork into a real shift in the law around land that belongs to the taxpayer, they’ll have to convert their own neighbors. Many people who live in, work on, and seek leisure activities near the natural resources the Bundys and their allies want to appropriate are wary of the land seizure movement.

As Montana-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers see it, for example, the end of federal control of public lands “would be a wholesale disaster for the American outdoor family.”

“For all its warts, federal land management guarantees that every American has a voice in how that land is managed and they have an equal right to set foot on it. Not so if public land suddenly becomes a private hunt club or a tree farm for a timber company,” the group notes in a petition opposing the land seizure movement.