The Tortoise/Rancher Debacle: Another Perspective

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I have never before posted anything I have not written myself, but Montana rancher and author John L. Moore sent me two views he wrote about the Bundy-Federal government stand-off, and I find them both so compelling that I have asked him for permission to post them here. He graciously consented, provided I wait until they were published by Aleteia. They have been published and I post them now for your edification and enjoyment. The second piece in particular is very apt for Good Friday.





If you took a map of the United States and colored the federally-owned land in red it would appear as if the American West was bleeding. Or on fire. It is.

The ongoing Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada is evidence of that. On April 5, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, utilizing helicopters and hired cowboys, began removing Cliven Bundy’s 900 head of “trespassing” cattle. Citing threats from Bundy over the past two decades, the feds arrived with their own law enforcement including hilltop snipers and attack dogs. Two designated “free speech areas” were set up by authorities which was insult-to-injury to Bundy supporters, many of whom were well-armed. Soon YouTube was sparking with videos of citizens being “Tased” and set upon by dogs. Not good public relations for the feds.

Bundy, on the other hand, looked like an overweight John Wayne, though some had reason to question if his white hat really represented his nature. It is easy to have sympathy for the state of Nevada unless you’d enjoy living where 85% of the land is federally-owned; the largest urban center is nicknamed Sin City; vast landscapes hold the ESA protected Desert Tortoise (the said reason for the termination of cattle grazing in the Bunkerville area); a senior U.S. Senator, Harry Reid, who’s viewed with contempt by many; and a history, including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s-80s, of fighting for states rights.

It is not quite as easy to have sympathy for Bundy, though one may concede a certain admiration. Bundy is not of the ilk of the late E. Wayne Hage, whose Nevada ranching family continues its seventeen-year battle against the BLM and government intimidation. The Hage family wins lawsuits. Bundy, representing himself, loses. To Bundy supporters it doesn’t matter if he is scalawag, scofflaw, skunk, or saint. He is there. And those on the far right are demanding that he is theirs. This question of character and whether it counts, has caused deep division in the already-fractured West.  On a personal level, I’ve had numerous people, including two friends, challenge me passionately because I urge caution before jumping on the Bundy bandwagon. “This is a bellwether event,” one said, insisting Bundy had to be championed “warts and all.”

Those of us who not only remember the Montana Freemen Standoff, but were close to it, don’t jump quickly. Through the late winter and spring of 1996, I watched conveys of FBI and news media vehicles drive past my eastern Montana ranch on their way to Brusett, Montana where the Freeman — described by Wikipedia as a Christian Patriot movement — were barricaded in a small farm house the media called a “compound.” The vehicles went north in the morning. They returned at night. The Freemen spouted lofty ideals, but essentially, were farmers in financial trouble who hated banks, liked guns, and used bullying tactics. The FBI used restraint, but no one believed they wanted to. What seemed to have a Waco-destiny to it, was resolved peacefully when a true ‘white hat,’ Montana Lt. Governor Karl Ohs, rode his horse up to the compound and talked the Freemen out. Long prison terms awaited them.

The two situations, Bunkerville and Brusett, are similar but not the same. The Freemen were attacking an economic system, the Bundys, at their best, are challenging a states rights issue. The Montana Freemen are now just a footnote in history. What will this Bundy incident be?

The last sentence above — “What will this Bundy incident be? — sounds like a concluding question, but this story is larger than Cliven Bundy and Bunkerville and reveals a terrifying reality. The rural West is fed-up. We are tired of being treated like the nation’s petting zoo, tourist destination, and ecological petri dish by eastern elites, left coast Cannabis consumers, agitated animal rights activists, and many high priests of the various denominations of the High Church of Environmentalism. For decades we’ve endured schemes, both unrealized and implemented, that stagger common sense: The Big Open, The Buffalo Commons, mustangs (feral horses), reintroduction of wolves (and not even the same wolf that was here, for it is already extinct); free-roaming bison, one endangered species after another, and it could all come to a fiery conclusion with the Greater sage grouse, if not before. The Greater sage grouse is one of several wild fowl that could be placed on the Protected Species List in September of 2015. I choose it for my example because I know the bird. I can see them daily if I want to. The sage grouse habitat area is said to be 186 million acres spread over 11 western states. Of this, 40% is on private land. The ESA is the big hammer. Private land be damned, is it’s mantra. If Cliven Bundy is fighting mad over land that is questionably his, wait until the nation sees what happens if thousands of ranchers and farmers on deeded ground face removal or unrealistic restrictions. Then the West will glow red. People here are already talking civil war. The frustration is buried so deep, the love of freedom so intense, that some seem itching for the shooting to begin. The West is boiling and Clive Bundy is simply the thermometer in the pot.


On Cowboys, Conflict, and Christ

When I was approached by Aleteia to write an opinion piece on the Clive Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada I was surprised but not daunted. I have years of experience with ranching, dealing with the government, and observing others doing the same. When Aleteia came back and asked for a follow-up on how a Christian should respond to confrontation I was not surprised, but I was daunted. I am a Christian, but not a Catholic. I am neither a theologian nor a historian. But I am storyteller and this is my story.

I am a person of the land and in that I relate to the Jewish people. Is there a culture or religion on this earth more defined by land? I was born into ranching in 1952, left it for eight years to experience life: a little college, a few years of newspaper work, 12,000 miles of hitchhiking, a stint in the Air Force, but the pull was always there. When my father died I received a hardship discharge and returned to the ranch. That was 1979.

In the past 34 years ranching has tried breaking me many, many times. Not just financially, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Several times, at the end of our ropes, my wife Debra and I cried out to God saying, “we will leave if this is what You ask.” But the nudge was to stay, to push on, to persevere. We endured the family tests that all ranching families know: Death. Too many heirs, not enough land. We saw our two children, not sensing land in their immediate destiny, leave for cities. I’ve endured frostbite, hypothermia, and drought so long and bitter your soul tasted like sand. I’ve broken ribs and one leg, displaced a shoulder repeatedly, separated ribs, torn a meniscus tendon, cut through a tendon in my foot, and, at 61, have arthritis in my hands, limited motion in my neck, and stiffness in pain in my lower back. I’ve fought fire until the smoke damaged my lungs, have had calves die in my arms, put good old saddle horses down at my hand, and have seen hail ruin our pastures not once, not twice, but four times in four straight years. And I would do it all again. I know how ranching families feel about land, and as a Christian, I feel also, the call of stewardship and the warning to hold nothing too tightly.

Of all the threats against our heritage, I only fear two: the government and environmentalists. I know that government can be helpful when it is small and sees its role as a servant. I know the bullying and arrogance of a government that has grown so large it is convinced it does not work for you. You work for it. I fear environmentalists because they are, to me, what so many accuse Christians of being: smug, self-righteous, above reproach or questioning. When I was young I wanted to be a naturalist. As a high school leader I started the first Earth Day in my community — I regret that now. But, those were the days of ecology. We understood that systems were part of a whole in Nature’s world and one effected all. But I don’t know what an environmentalist is. It’s like the word cool. How do you define it? Teenagers on Facebook, celebrities on television, even little old ladies at bridge clubs announce they are “an environmentalist.” So, it is something beyond science and training. It is a belief, a philosophy, a creed.

I have had disputes with the Bureau of Land Management. Nothing like what is transpiring in Nevada, but enough to make you lose sleep at night. Most of these were small concerns: matters of a government employee’s attitude, a problem with trespassers, the pettiness of certain inflexible rules. Personally, I have liked many BLM people. Still do. Only once did I reach the point of demanding to meet with the State Director. Over coffee in a cowboy cafe I expressed concerns that seemed to bore him to death. He fidgeted, look at his watch, acted like I was small and he was big and his time more valuable than mine. So, I did what I hate to do. I played the journalist card. “I’m not just a rancher,” I had to say. “I’m a journalist, too.” He gave me a bemused stare. “Look,” I said, “I’m not talking about writing a letter to the local paper. I’ve been published in the New York Times Magazine. Everything changed then. He became a political animal and couldn’t offer to help me enough.

So when I saw the Bundy conflict on television and YouTube I empathized with the protesters. Good for them! But as the emails and Facebook messages begin flooding in I felt sick. Two main groups were writing me. Cowboys and ministers. The cowboys being mad I understood, but declared men of God was another matter. Where was Christ in this? I saw the law officers in another light. Surely among them, perhaps the one that might catch a Militia bullet, was a devout young man with a wife and young family. He probably served his country in Iraq and Afghanistan and dreamed of a career in law enforcement. He was not a “jack-booted thug.” He was a brother.

True evil always stands behind a few deceived men who stand behind a thousand men who do not understand the men they work for. Had I no compassion for men under orders? What would change their minds, their hearts? The threats of bullets? They are warriors. The threat of women being put at the front so the nation might see them die at their hands if shooting started? They are men under command. Of all things in the emails and messages I sorted through, what bothered me most was the rancor and opportunism from some of my Christian friends. Was this the day, as Christ said, that we go and buy the sword? The Body of Christ has known those days before. Was the cheek-turning over, had peacemaking ceased, were we ready to reap the seeds we seemed so eager to plant? Were our methods as noble as our cause? Did we so fear Tribulation we demanded to hurry it?

In that rancorous din I found one peace: A man had to follow his own heart. I was reminded of a dream I’d had in May, 2011. In the dream what seemed to be an angel said to me, “The key to the End Times is Ezekiel 1:12.” I awakened and read the Scripture. “And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went.” How cryptic can you be, Lord? Straight forward to where? Forward to battle? Forward to a cross of sacrifice? But that wasn’t the message. It wasn’t a matter of where. It was a matter of listening and obeying. It was a matter of priorities. Of what comes first. Not country, not land, not Constitution, nor righteous anger.

But God.

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