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BUNKERVILLE, NEV.—For some, the story of Cliven Bundy and his 20-year fight against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is about one man’s refusal to pay grazing fees on public land he doesn’t own.
For the family, and scores of supporters that have come to his aid in the face of aggressive force used by the federal government, what happened in Bunkerville, Nev. is about the “rise of the West.”
“As important as it is for a man to fight for his ranch and his livelihood, this is much bigger than that,” said Ammon Bundy, Cliven’s son. “This is the American people fighting for their freedoms.”
The BLM brought 200 armed officials, helicopters, and snipers with them to take the Bundys' cattle away, a result of a two-decades court battle over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, and the BLM’s decision to block off nearly a third of the land for the “critical desert tortoise.”
After a week of heated clashes with the family, the standoff ended on Saturday when the federal government called the operation off citing safety concerns, and cowboys and protesters stormed the impound gate to set the Bundys' cows free.
As of Monday, not a single BLM ranger remained. But for the Bundys, and many like them, the fight has just begun.
Hundreds of supporters from across the country gathered off Interstate 15, about 70 miles outside of Las Vegas, on Monday. A sea of cowboy hats, “No BLM” pins, and American flags, many members of the crowd had their own story of federal bureaucrats infringing on their land.
“I’m standing on a metal knee that I got from a Bundy bull 43 years ago,” said Allen, who came from just across the border in Utah.
Allen used to do rodeo, and was bucked off one of Cliven’s brother’s bulls in 1971.
“We’re totally completely surrounded by the Forest Service where our ranch is on the mountain,” he said. “And they screw with us constantly.”
Allen said he’s been harassed by Forest Service Rangers patrolling near his family’s livestock ranch, telling him he can’t ride his ATV on the land because it isn’t “licensed.”
“I tell them, ‘You’re on my property, dude. You ain’t gotta tell me what I’m gonna do on my property.’”
“I’m sorry the Bundys are going through this, but it’s a good thing,” said Bruce Olsen, from Arizona. “It had to happen sooner or later.”
“I’ve been waiting for this event for 59 years,” he said.
Olsen grew up near Kansas City, and watched thousands of farmers displaced after the government built a dam he said the community didn’t want or need.
“The federal government in this country is gone,” Olsen said. “The best thing that could happen to this country is go to Washington, D.C., throw a long chain around the District of Columbia, drag it down the Potomac out to sea, let it sink. And it’d be two months before anyone in America ever missed them.”
David R. Rawls from Florence, Ariz., has spent most of his life battling the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service.
When Rawls, 70, was 15 years old the family was told that a railroad would be built through their six mining claim properties. His family then spent decades battling the government in the courts, and Rawls and his mother were evicted by dozens of heavily armed U.S. Marshals and Forest Service officials.
His father, a “real man of the West,” died a decade into the ordeal.
“All of the strain of this put him under so much stress, after 10 years he got kidney cancer and died,” Rawls said. “He got heart broke and sick. When dad saw that everything he had worked so hard for all his life was being stolen he got sick and died.”
Rawls has set up camp just off River Cliff Road. His white van that’s covered in political signs and quotes from Thomas Jefferson sits on the shoulder, along with hand-made six-foot signs telling his story, and messages against “totalitarianism.”
“They’re just thieves,” he said.
“Over the last 55 years I’ve watched with an eagle eye, I’ve watched them wipe out thousands of small miners, thousands of small farmers,” he said. “They’ve basically wiped out the family farm.”
Rawls said he hopes the Bundy standoff will bring awareness to what his family and so many others have gone through at the hands of federal bureaucracies.
“If fault was done to us, and a whole bunch of other people, these people could get wide exposure in this country. They would turn everything around,” he said.
“The American people would be really outraged of what’s been going on.”
The Bundy family stood proud during the Monday press conference, standing atop a trailer that was used for a stage. Margaret Houston, Cliven’s sister who was pushed to the ground by BLM rangers, said she feels like she has friends “all over the United States.”
“We’ve opened the door for the sheriffs and the people to step in, take care of their areas,” she said. “I feel wonderful.”
Though the family and supporters felt a sense of accomplishment, they won’t be satisfied after just pushing out the BLM.
“It’s incredibly important that we take that victory and take it and spread it around the West,” said Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, an organization of current and former military, police, and first responders who came to the Bundys' aid.
“What’s going to happen now is the rise of the West,” he said.
In a post noting that Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on legally, attorney and blogger John Hinderaker explained why people should nevertheless be sympathetic to the family’s plight.
“The bedrock issue here is that the federal government owns more than 80% of the state of Nevada. … Most of the land is federal. And the federal agencies that rule over federal lands have agendas,” Hinderaker wrote. “At every opportunity, it seems, they restrict not only what can be done on federal lands, but on privately-owned property. They are hostile to traditional industries like logging, mining and ranching, and if you have a puddle in your back yard, the EPA will try to regulate it as a navigable waterway.”
For the Bundys, the issue isn’t about grazing fees, or the desert tortoise. The 600,000 acres of public land that the family has ranched since the 1870s should be in the hands of Nevada, they say.
“It’s not at all [about grazing fees],” Ammon Bundy said. “Because you shouldn’t have to pay rent on your own property.”
The Bundys lost in court because the federal government has held title to the land since 1838. The BLM did not begin managing the land until 1946, when the agency was founded. Believing the agency doesn’t have Nevada’s interest at heart, the Bundys want the land to be ceded to the state, and are hopeful their state government will work to make that happen.
“I think our state elected officials are going to completely take over from here,” Ammon Bundy told the Washington Free Beacon. "And they’re going to protect the people in most areas, and in ones that won’t, they’ll be replaced.”
“We’re gonna get this right,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re gonna get it right.”
Over 80 percent of Nevada is public land, but the majority of it is no longer ranched. Bundy is the last public land rancher in Clark County, and only three remain in all of Southern Nevada, according to the BLM.
The future of Bundys’ ranching in the Gold Butte area remains uncertain. Though they called off the impoundment, the BLM said it would continue to “work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said, “It’s not over.”
“We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it,” Reid said, who has close ties to the Interior Department and energy companies that have benefited from fast-tracked approval to lease federal lands for solar projects in Nevada and California. Neil Kornze, the principal deputy director for the BLM is a former energy staffer for Reid.
“So, it’s not over,” he said.
Armed with his DPMS 5.56 Oracle, Dale Potter was stationed at the top of the ridge, guarding the entryway into the Bundy Ranch homestead. Though the BLM is gone, armed Bundy supporters remain, in case the government comes back.
A member of the North Dakota Defense Force, Potter quit his day job doing garage door installation to help protect the Bundys.
“We are not leaving until the Bundys are safe,” he said. “Even if they think they can run us out.”
Outside the Bundys’ home were Booda Cavalier and Ryan Payne, former Marines who have joined local militias, and are running security for the Bundys’ and their 14 kids and 48 grandchildren.
“I don’t get much sleep,” said Cavalier, who operates an off-road vehicle business in Prescott, Ariz. He returned home on Saturday after the cattle were released, but quickly realized the Bundys still needed his help.
“There are still safety issues here,” he said. “And Mr. and Mrs. Bundy are concerned with their safety and their family’s safety.”
“This is duty,” said Payne, an industrial and commercial electrician from Montana. A former assistant team leader in a long-range surveillance unit for the XVIII Airborne Corps, Payne joined the West Mountain Rangers, 41st Mountain Field Force militia group a year and a half ago.
He started Operation Mutual Aid, a coalition of militias that travel across the country to provide defense of “public and private property, lives, and liberty,” with Jerry Bruckhart.
“We’re normal people, just like anybody else,” Cavalier said. “We’ll sit here and bullshit, and have a beer and a campfire, let the kids run around.”
Cavalier said the Bundys’ stand against the BLM will have major implications.
“It’s huge. I wish there would have been more, true mainstream media coverage to share this to the world,” he said. “This is a serious event.”
“Part of Operation Mutual Aid’s mission is to illuminate how you can stand in defense of liberty and actually accomplish it, because people are scared and they don’t know how to do it,” Payne said. “They just saw how to do it.”
For Cavalier and Payne, witnessing the Bundys' young grandchildren play as if nothing has happened makes the sacrifice of their time and energy worth it.
“Seeing the kids reinforces why we’re here,” Payne said. “This is to secure freedom for our progeny.”
“I come out here to do a duty that’s right,” Cavalier said. “And to see the feeling of Mr. Bundy’s cattle coming down that hill. And [Cliven] just tells me, ‘Booda, let’s go into my river.’”
“And we all went into that river, and watching him bend over and splash some cool water in his face, and then Mrs. Bundy coming down, and him splashing his wife, saying, ‘Hey, we almost did it, honey.’ And the kids playing out here,” he said. “The people’s comfort that they provide you is—it’s almost erotic. I can’t walk into that house without coming out and Mrs. Bundy trying to rifle some food down our throats.”
“The rewarding feeling of something like that, I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “That’s the simplicity of it.”