For more than two weeks, conservative elected officials and commentators alike cast Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy as a hero for refusing to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees owed to the federal government. Their comments helped spur armed militia members to rush to southern Nevada to support Bundy, with some training their guns on federal law enforcement officials in a dangerous standoff on April 12.
But the same officials and pundits who quickly backed the rancher began to abandon Bundy when he revealed his racist views in public comments on April 23.
Through a spokesman, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy’s racist comments “appalling.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said they were “offensive.”
Yet, despite condemning Bundy’s statements on race, the Nevada rancher’s supporters continue to stand by his radical anti-government views. In fact, a growing fringe of right-wing politicians share Bundy’s belief that the U.S. government has no legitimate authority over federal lands and that those lands should be either seized by the states or sold off to the highest bidder.
Members of this right-wing movement, which has been described as a rebirth of the 1970s “Sagebrush Rebellion,” are bound by shared support for at least one of three radical ideas—each of which Bundy propagated during his “range war” against the federal government:
- U.S. taxpayer-owned land should be sold or seized.
- The federal government has no valid authority over federal lands in states, and county sheriffs are the only rightful law enforcement authority.
- Citizens should challenge federal policies by defying the law on federal lands.
Although anti-government activism is not new to the American West, the land seizure movement has recently regained prominence and political strength not seen since the Reagan administration. Utah, for example, enacted new legislation in 2012 demanding that the federal government turn over federal lands to the state or face a lawsuit. While such a law would likely be deemed unconstitutional if tested in court, at least seven other states (Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada) have explored, considered, or passed similar measures since the beginning of 2013. One purpose of these land seizure efforts—along with similar land sell-off proposals in Congress—appears to be the expansion of mining, drilling, and logging, and the capture of these potential revenues for state coffers.
Though this anti-government movement is not likely to achieve its stated objective of “taking back” federal lands, it is nevertheless claiming a growing number of powerful elected officials among its supporters in the western states and beyond.
Over the coming weeks, the Center for American Progress will track and publish information about elected officials, organizations, and prominent commentators who endorse the anti-government, anti-public land ideas propagated by Mr. Bundy during the armed confrontation he led in southern Nevada.
These analyses will use three measures to evaluate the proximity of individuals’ and organizations’ views on federal lands and federal authority to those of Mr. Bundy:
- Do they support the sell-off or state seizure of federal lands?
- Do they dispute the U.S. government’s authority over federal lands?
- Have they defied or encouraged defiance of federal law on public lands?
Our series begins with a look at five of Bundy’s most prominent supporters.
While each of “Bundy’s Buddies” plays a prominent role in the movement to seize or sell off public lands, they are not acting alone. In fact, they are supported by a broad network of federal, state, and local elected officials, conservative interest groups, and pundits who share their goals. Future pieces of analysis in this series will examine this broader network.
Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Public Lands Project at American Progress. Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate at American Progress.