Charges Thrown Out In The Bundy Case.
After nearly two years of incarceration without either a conviction or bail, 71 year old Cliven Bundy is a free man. Monday, January 8, 2018, Judge Gloria Navarro declared that the mistrial, involving him, two sons, and two other co-defendants, was “with prejudice.” This means that the charges against them are thrown out.
Now that they have been cleared of 16 federal felonies stemming from a 2014 standoff between supporters and federal agents, their challenge to federal land ownership in Nevada is back on the table.
When Nevada became a state in 1864, the federal government retained ownership of nearly 85% of its land. This was sharp departure from previous federal policy, which had either sold or ceded federal lands to states which had joined the union earlier.
Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and California all share Nevada’s plight. States east of the Mississippi have sovereignty over more than 95% of their land. But these ten western states own just over 40% of their land. The constitutionality of this situation has never come before the Supreme Court.
In Wyoming, the federal government owns almost half of our surface land, and two thirds of our mineral rights. While we struggle to fund our schools and roads, the federal government prevents us from taxing half of the land within our state, and forces our mining taxes, a third of Wyoming’s annual budget, to be routed through Washington, D.C., where it is regularly delayed and siphoned off.
When the Bundys established a ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada in 1877, the federal lands surrounding their homestead was free range. Like thousands of ranchers in the mountain west, they used it to graze livestock and they improved it with water systems and fences.
But, after 55 years of this arrangement, Congress passed the 1932 Taylor Grazing Act. Suddenly, ranchers were charged grazing fees and required to apply for permits. Since the fees and red-tape were relatively light, they complied and carried on.
As six more decades passed, land regulations became increasingly burdensome and politicized. In 1993, after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) informed him that the desert tortoise would restrict his grazing enough to threaten the entire ranching operation, Bundy had had enough.
He challenged the right of the federal government to own and control Nevada’s lands. Reverting to a pre-BLM agreement, he paid his grazing fees to Clark County, Nevada, instead of to the federal government.
Contrary to much false reporting, Bundy is not anti-government. He simply believes that the legitimate government over these lands is state and not federal. His action, however, was litigated in federal courts, where he predictably lost over the course of 20 years.
By then, the BLM calculated that he owed $1.2 million in back fees and penalties, and gave him an impossible choice: pay the money or forfeit his cattle. Either way, he would lose the ranch that had been in the family 130 years. When he refused to comply, the federal government raised the stakes.
Federal agents used helicopters to drive Bundy’s cattle off the land. Some cattle were run to death. Others lost their calves, and still others were shot. They also placed surveillance and snipers around the Bundy home, raising the specter of another “Ruby Ridge.” By late March in 2014 about 200 heavily armed government agents were amassed around the Bundy ranch.
In response, the Bundys sought support by posting their plight on the internet. At first, about 60 people came. When these were roughed up by federal agents, an outpouring of people came from all over America. As many as 1,000 armed protesters confronted the federal agents holding Bundy’s livestock. They demanded that the cattle be released and that the operation be stopped. After several tense hours, the federal agents backed down and left.
On February 10, 2016, Cliven was arrested. He and two sons, along with two others, were charged with 16 federal felonies related to the April 2014 standoff. They have been held without bail ever since.
Judge Navarro called a mistrial with prejudice because thousands of pages of evidence had been willfully withheld from the Bundy defense team. Among these documents was evidence that, although government threat assessments did not consider the Bundys to be a risk of violence, snipers and surveillance cameras were deployed at their home.
Still, the story is far from over. Is it possible for the Bundys and the BLM to resolve the decades-long dispute in a way that allows them to keep their ranch? Was the range of the desert tortoise extended in a scheme to drive the Bundys off the land? Do we have enoughprotections in place to make sure such things cannot happen?
Behind all of this is the underlying question of why ten western states have been treated differently by the federal government from every other state in the union. While the Bundys have certainly taken an extreme stand, which is not shared by the majority of western ranchers, they have nevertheless given national prominence to a concern that is shared by all.