Since his racist views surfaced on April 23, rancher Cliven Bundy has all but vanished from the talking points of Sean Hannity, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and the conservative politicians and pundits who—just days earlier—had cheered the Nevada rancher’s defiance of the federal government and his refusal to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees owed to U.S. taxpayers.
Although many of Bundy’s supporters have distanced themselves from the rancher’s racist opinions, a network of right-wing politicians, organizations, and individuals share Bundy’s belief that the U.S. government has no legitimate authority over federal lands and that those lands should either be seized by the states or sold off to the highest bidder.
The opening installment of the “Bundy’s Buddies” series identified five of the most prominent elected officials and organizations who are part of this right-wing movement, including Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R).
This second installment takes a deeper look at the views of members of Congress. The analysis uses three measures to evaluate the similarity of members’ views on federal lands and federal authority to those of 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?
Based on these criteria, there are 15 members of Congress who have endorsed at least one of these out-of-the-mainstream ideas that Bundy propagated during his “range war” against the federal government.
Most of the federal elected officials surveyed were careful not to endorse lawbreaking either at the roundup of Bundy’s cattle in Nevada or at a recent illegal off-highway vehicle, or OHV, rally in Recapture Canyon, Utah. Unlike several county elected officials, most federal officials also appear to acknowledge federal authority on federal lands.
Yet all of the members of Congress identified here either endorsed state efforts to seize federal lands or have themselves led efforts in Congress to sell off more than 3 million acres of federal lands to the highest bidder. The end goal of both the land sell-off and state land-seizure strategies appears to be the expansion of mining, drilling, and logging and the capture of these potential revenues for state coffers.
In addition to the incumbents analyzed here, some candidates for Congress are also endorsing land-seizure or sell-off proposals as part of their campaign platforms. When asked whether public lands should remain in federal ownership, be transferred to the state, or privatized, Montana State Rep. Champ Edmunds, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, responded:
The compact of statehood promised, and the Framers of the Constitution envisioned, that federal lands would be granted back to the states for local control. In Montana, the federal government controls over 24 million acres of land … It’s time to return these [federal] lands to Montana so that we can manage our forests, protect private property, implement responsible and sustainable harvest programs, and reap the economic benefits that come from well-managed lands.
When asked the same question, Edmunds’ competitor in the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT), did not say whether he thought taxpayer-owned lands should be kept under federal management, sold, or transferred to the state. Daines, who previously voted to sell off public lands as part of a budget proposal to help reduce the deficit, equivocated: “I know that Montanans—not Washington bureaucrats—know best how to manage our land.”
Although the Bundy standoff, the illegal OHV ride through Recapture Canyon, and state land-seizure efforts have drawn the spotlight in recent weeks, it appears that the anti-government, anti-public-land philosophy—which has been described as a rebirth of the 1970s “Sagebrush Rebellion”—is well outside the mainstream in the American West.
A February survey commissioned by Colorado College found that 9 out of 10 western voters view their national forests, monuments, wildlife areas, and public lands as integral to their state’s economy.
The recent attention on Bundy and land-seizure efforts is prompting a strong rebuke from mainstream users of public lands, including sportsmen, responsible OHV groups, and conservation organizations. They are calling for respect for the law and the protection of public lands.
The land-seizure movement is a “radical cry,” said a recent alert that Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, or BHA, sent to its members. “Our federal land system and outdoor heritage is the envy of the world,” BHA went on to say, “and depends on keeping federal public lands out of state ownership.”
Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Public Lands Project at American Progress.
Jessica Goad, Greg Zimmerman, and Erin Moriarty of the Center for Western Priorities contributed to the research for this report.