Government officials retreated Saturday from federal property in Gold Butte, Nev., leaving behind some 389 “trespass cattle” that had been impounded as the result of a decades-long dispute between a local rancher and the U.S. government.
But while the story has managed to capture the attention of thousands of Americans, it has also managed to confuse thousands more. Indeed, from questions regarding property rights to whether a Democratic senator was involved in the cattle roundup, many have been left wondering what it’s all about and searching for the facts.
So in an effort to provide some clarity on the ongoing developments in Gold Butte, here are some answers to the seven main questions people have asked about the decades-long fight between 67-year-old rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government:
7. Does Sen. Harry Reid have a connection to the Bureau of Land Management?
In a way, yes.
The new head of the Bureau of Land Management recently served as senior policy adviser to Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.
Neil Kornze, 35, left Reid’s office (where he managed public land issues) in 2011 to join the Bureau of Land Management as senior adviser to the director. He later became the deputy director for policy and programs in 2013.
The U.S. Senate then voted 71-28 on April 8, 2014, to confirm Kornze as the new director of the agency.
6. Is Harry Reid working with the Chinese to force the Bundys out?
The facts don't support it.
Reid and his son, Rory, were both deeply involved in a deal with the Chinese-owned ENN Energy Group to build a $5 billion solar farm in Laughlin, Nevada. But that is roughly 177 miles away from Bundy’s 150-acre ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., and 213 miles from the federally owned Gold Butte area where Bundy 's cattle graze, according to Google Maps.
It’s worth noting that Rory Reid is the former chair of the Clark County commission (Clark County is located near the Gold Butte area). He left in 2011 to work for a Las Vega law firm representing ENN.
But despite the Reids' best attempts to secure the land for ENN, and despite the Bureau of Land Management expressing concerns that “trespass cattle” could complicate plans to use land in the Gold Butte area for “offsite mitigation for impacts from solar development,” it was all in vain: The Chinese company eventually shelved the project in June 2013 when it failed to find a customer. The deal is over and the proposed construction will not happen.
5. So Who Owns the Land in Question?
The federal government owns the disputed land and has claimed ownership since before Nevada even joined the union, according to a 2013 U.S. District Court ruling.
“[T]he public lands in Nevada are the property of the United States because the United States has held title to those public lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States,” the ruling states, confirming the federal government’s longstanding claim that it lawfully acquired ownership of the land under the Treaty of the Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The court rejected Bundy’s repeated claim to having an intergenerational right to use the land as invalid and said his arguments against federal ownership carry no legal weight.
“Bundy has produced no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada,” the decision reads.
It’s important to note that like most states, in its constitution Nevada recognizes federal authority over public lands:
That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States; and that lands belonging to citizens of the United States, residing without the said state, shall never be taxed higher than the land belonging to the residents thereof; and that no taxes shall be imposed by said state on lands or property therein belonging to, or which may hereafter be purchased by, the United States, unless otherwise provided by the congress of the United States. [Amended in 1956. Proposed and passed by the 1953 legislature; agreed to and passed by the 1955 legislature; approved and ratified by the people at the 1956 general election. See: Statutes of Nevada 1953, p. 718; Statutes of Nevada 1955, p. 926.]
In 1934, Congress enacted the Taylor Grazing Act, giving the federal government the authority to regulate grazing on the public lands in an effort to improve rangeland conditions.
Twelve years later, the General Land Office and Grazing Service were combined to form the Bureau of Land Management, which has been given the authority to regulate public lands, including nearly 600,000 acres in Gold Butte.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering Nevada joined the union in 1864. Bundy’s family didn't start working the Clark Country area until the late 1880s.
Here's the 2013 court ruling against the 67-year-old rancher:
This section has been updated.
4. Did Mr. Bundy ever recognize federal authority and pay grazing fees?
According to his daughter, yes.
Mr. Bundy has stated repeatedly in the past that he does not recognize federal authority in Gold Butte, arguing instead that the state owns the land.
However, he hasn’t always taken such a strong stance against federal ownership of land located inside Nevada's border. In fact, Bundy used to pay the Bureau of Land Management's grazing fees “for years,” according to his daughter, Shiree Bundy Cox, but stopped in 1993 when he decided it wasn’t in his best interest.
“My dad did pay his grazing fees for years to the [Bureau of Land Management] until they were no longer using his fees to help him and to improve. Instead they began using these [sic] money’s against the ranchers,” she wrote in a blog post dated April 11, 2014. “They bought all the rest of the ranchers in the area out with they’re [sic] own grazing fees. When they offered to buy my dad out for a penence [sic] he said no thanks and then fired them because they weren’t doing their job.”
By “fired,” Cox means her father stopped paying the federal grazing fees.
Her post continues, claiming Cliven Bundy tried at one point to send grazing fee payments to the county instead of the Washington, D.C., but was turned down by local officials.
“So my dad just went on running his ranch and making his own improvements with his own equipment and his own money, not taxes,” she wrote.
An interesting note: When federal agents first deployed last week to shut down Gold Butte, Bundy did several interviews with well-known media outlets, including ABC News, Fox News and the L.A. Times.
TheBlaze also spoke with him for nearly an hour.
He never mentioned trying to make grazing fee payments to the county or being turned away by local officials. His explanations for using the land focused almost entirely on his so-called “pre-emptive rights,” which include the right to forage.
It wasn’t until Friday, more than a week after federal agents started impounding his “trespass cattle,” that Bundy started talking about trying to pay the county.
TheBlaze has not yet contacted the Clark County clerk’s office to confirm whether Bundy tried to make payment. We will include that information in this story when we receive it.
3. Is the Bundy cattle fight really all about a desert tortoise?
Several observers have suggested that the fight between Bundy and the federal government revolves around an endangered tortoise. Although there's some truth to this claim, it lacks important context.
Here's a timeline of events:
- 1993: The Lake Mead National Recreation Area for the National Park Service reduce the number of cattle that could graze on the Bunkerville allotment “to 150 because of the emergency listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species,” according to a formal agency official.
- 1993: Bundy “fires” the BLM.
- 1994: The Fish and Wildlife Service formally identifies Gold Butte as an area “critical to the long-term survival of the desert tortoise.”
- 1994: Federal officials revoke Bundy’s grazing permit for failure to pay and failure to reduce the number of his cattle. The Bunkerville allotment is closed to grazing.
- 1998: The Bureau of Land Management closes off the Gold Butte area to cattle.
- 2012: The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group, sues the Bureau of Land Management for failing to enforce its own laws and remove Bundy’s “trespass cattle.”
- 2013: The Bureau of Land Management announces plans to euthanize "hundreds" of tortoises due to budget restrictions
Gold Butte being turned into a cattle-free zone wasn’t exactly sudden. It was a few years in the making, which brings us to our next question.
This section has been updated.
2. Were the ranchers really chased off and forced into bankruptcy?
Were all the other ranchers in the area of Clark County really “chased off” and, as Cox (Bundy's daughter) put it, forced into bankruptcy by the federal government?
It's not clear.
After the federal government agreed to designate the area for the endangered animal, Clark County purchased all “valid existing grazing permits for Gold Butte, paying $375,000 to retire them for the benefit of the tortoise."
Ordinarily, this would be considered a simple buyout, which is obviously different from being “forced into bankruptcy” or being priced out entirely. However, as Cox wrote, the ranchers were bought off with their "own grazing fees," suggesting they made no net gain from turning over their permits.
TheBlaze will request clarification from the Clark County clerk's office as soon as possible to help explain this question.
1. Did the Feds Overreact?
Contract cowboys and hundreds of armed federal agents descended on the publicly held property last week, bringing with them dozens of retrofitted SUVs, helicopters and heavy duty hauling equipment (the Bundy family claims the government also deployed snipers and "heavy artillery," but these claims have not been confirmed by secondary sources).
This prompted the obvious question: How did this go from a property dispute to something featuring plenty of armed agents and even a Bundy relative being tased?
Consider that there has been a lot of saber-rattling rhetoric being used.
For instance, Bundy once casually told reporters in an interview that he keeps several firearms at his ranch, adding that he would do "whatever it takes" to protect his cattle.
“I’ve got to protect my property … If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws,” he said in reference to what he repeatedly calls a "range war."
Bundy has also regularly invoked Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, claiming often and loudly that he’s the “last cowboy standing.”
Even his wife, Carol, said in an interview: "I've got a shotgun … It's loaded and I know how to use it. We're ready to do what we have to do, but we'd rather win this in the court of public opinion."
And then there are the militias that showed up to support Bundy.
“This is what we do, we provide armed response,” Jim Lordy with Operation Mutual Aid told a local station. “They have guns. We need guns to protect ourselves from the tyrannical government.”
Still, the militia members and protesters insist it's the government that became violent first with the tasing incident, as well as the mere presence of the armed federal agents. And Ammon Bundy, Cliven's son who was tased, did restrict rifles within camp last week:
Either way, it appears the language being used has put at least a few federal officials on edge.
“I was one of those public officials who were told to back off at one point because of concern for violence,” a former National Park Services official said in an op-ed.
In the end, the feds say they pulled back out of fear of escalating tensions, with each side likely pointing the finger at the other as the instigator.
“Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” Neil Kornze, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management, said Saturday in a statement. “We ask that all parties in the area remain peaceful and law-abiding as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service work to end the operation in an orderly manner.”
Initial estimates put the cost of the federal government’s failed attempt to remove Bundy’s "trespass cattle" at around $3 million.
TheBlaze will continue to follow the story and bring you any updates.
Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter