Mesquite, NV – As they say in the high desert, whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting about. The armed dispute between citizen militiamen and federal agents that suddenly abated on Saturday in a cessation of hostilities was no different.
It’s all about the water.
More important, it’s all about the sovereignty of the individual to hold title to personal and real property, and the power of a County Sheriff to claim constitutional authority to intercede in the name of the peace and dignity of the people of an individual state.
In this case, the heated exchange of verbiage and emotions nearly led to a second shot heard round the world in a new American revolution.
Hundreds of militiamen armed with AR-15 style assault rifles spearheaded a successful defense by an estimated 1,000 protesters of Cliven Bundy’s ranch, where federal agents had beseiged the beleaguered family for the past week by seizing 300 of a herd of 1,000 cattle.
Bundy owes an estimated $1.1 million in grazing fees he has refused to pay since 1993, when the Bureau of Land Management limited the family’s grazing permit to 150 head.
The dispute centers around a homestead claimed by the Bundy family in 1870 and a further claim of ownership of grazing rights to more than 100,000 acres. The bureau seeks to protect a species of turtle by charging grazing fees per day of $1.35 per mama cow and calf on the limited number of cattle allowed.
The grazing permits disallow cattle trampling the newly grown succulents in the riparian boundries of stream beds, while at the same time severely limiting the construction of earthen cattle watering tanks designed to catch runoff snow melt.
Bundy will have none of it. He has grazed his cattle ever since 1993, in defiance of repeated orders to the contrary. He has attempted to pay the grazing fees, but not to the federal government. He has persuaded the State of Nevada to hold earnest payments in escrow of some part of what the government claims he owes until his dispute may be settled.
After Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie completed successful negotiations with the federal authorities, bureau officials agreed to let Bundy have his 300 head of cattle back, and presumably to proceed through more civil means to satisfy their claim against the Bundy family business.
Federal agents attacked protesting members of the family; they were thrown to the ground, shot with Taser guns, and threatened with jail.
It is far from the first time that such a dispute has claimed the attention of the people of the American west.
A case in point is that of the young ranching couple of Kit and Sherry Laney of the Diamond Bar Ranch, who built their operation into an award-winning free range ranch, complete with watering tanks, before federal authorities made a similar move in 1996, limiting their permitted herd size to 300 head and 20 horses after initially permitting more than 1,188 when they acquired 100 acres of real property in January, 1986, near Mimbres, New Mexico. It’s roadless property which fronts on a grazing allotment of 144,578 acres, the largest in the state with a history of grazing permits that dates back to 1908. Permitted herd size peaked at 2,300 in 1924.
Since the road ends at their log cabin, the Laneys carried out their operation from horseback, hauling fencing materials and salt in wagons with draft horses, and packing in everything they needed by horse train. Permits allow no use of motorized transport in the grazing area. We’re talking ranching operations in the manner of the Hat Creek Outfit of Lonesome Dove fame.
In a memorandum of understanding drafted at the time they acquired the property, the government encouraged water source enhancement in the form of earthen tanks – their aim, to reduce the amount of traffic in stream beds. The Laneys did so, and received special recognition for their stewardship in 1993.
Formation of an environmentalist coalition, a committee of two that ran a full-page ad in the Albuquerque daily newspaper, changed all that. According to Susan Christy of “Range” Magazine, “Gila Watch placed a full-page ad in the Albuquerque Journal in April 1995 showing a bone-thin calf on a worn pasture and claiming that, ‘one rancher commands the use of 145,000 acres of the…wilderness through the ownership of only 115 acres of private land…’”
The people in the big city took to it with the furious indignation of a bunch of Sierra Clubbers to a “guarantee of dolphin-free tuna.” The Laneys were misusing their range land. They demanded satisfaction.
It was the beginning of the end for Kit and Sherry Laney. By 1997, when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the U.S. Forest Service’s order to get their cows off the place, they pulled up stakes and tried ranching elsewhere.
In 2003, Sherry recalled, they were stymied by dry weather and an inability to meet lease payments. When they looked back at what they had walked away from, all they could see was “a world of grass” at the Diamond Bar. Why not take advantage of it?
They sent the Secretary of Agriculture a letter claiming sovereign ownership by virtue of warranty deeds, moved their cattle back on the range, and, as they say west of Cowtown…The war was on.
Before it was over, Kit Laney wound up in the federal lockup for riding down federal officers who were brandishing assault rifles as they herded his cattle with helicopters and motor vehicles, penning calves away from their mamas, and otherwise making a shambles of his careful stewardship of his herd, a business he and his wife built by hand.
They lost the place. Neither of them are ranchers today.
When former Vietnam war correspondent Anthony Chiaviello penned his critique for “Range” Magazine, he characterized the dispute by writing, “the reality of the environmental conflict surrounding the Diamond Bar was constructed by the rhetoric surrounding it.” Amen.