Letters from the West

Lawmakers see Bundy supporter as a victim. Lands workers still see someone to fear.

Eric Parker aims his weapon in April 2014 from a bridge next to the Bureau of Land Management’s base camp where seized cattle, belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy, were being held.
Eric Parker aims his weapon in April 2014 from a bridge next to the Bureau of Land Management’s base camp where seized cattle, belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy, were being held. Reuters

Rep. Dorothy Moon has been getting angry and, often, rude phone calls from people mad at her for introducing an iconic Bundy Ranch standoff figure on the House floor.

Moon, R-Stanley, carried on a long practice among lawmakers of recognizing people who come to the Capitol and sit in the gallery, with an introduction and usually a wave. But Eric Parker of Hailey got a round of applause from legislators before House Speaker Scott Bedke gaveled them to order.

Parker’s picture in 2014 — prone on an overpass in a sniper position, wearing a baseball cap and a flak jacket, and pointing his assault rifle toward the BLM’s base camp at Bunkerville, Nev. — has become an enduring image from the standoff.

I sat down with Moon to talk about the incident and her crusade for justice for Idahoans caught up in the Bundy saga. Later, I chatted with retired federal employees who thought the applause was misguided at best.

Parker is a prominent member of the Three Percenters, a reference to the 3 percent of colonists who actually fought in the American Revolution. They say they aren’t a militia, but a group fighting for liberty and against corruption. Parker, a Hailey electrician, was among 1,000 armed men who went to Bunkerville in April of 2014 at the call of Cliven Bundy and his family, who said they were under assault by the federal government.

“Violence should always be a last resort and even then, should only be defensive in nature,” states the Three Percenters’ website.

Parker and O. Scott Drexler, a fence builder from Challis, were later charged with conspiracy, extortion, assault and obstruction. Twice, their trials ended in hung juries. That prompted Moon to write a letter urging the charges against the pair be dropped. Fifty-three other Idaho legislators — some retired, most House members, all Republicans — also signed on.

Drexler and Parker later accepted a plea deal dropping their felony charges down to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of a court order. Only days after, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed charges resulting from the standoff for Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and some of the gunmen who were there. Egregious examples of evidence withheld from the defense meant prosecutors could not charge the men again, Navarro subsequently ruled.

For Moon, it was only natural to recognize Parker, who was in Boise for a protest against a proposed national constitutional convention. The protest included not only the Three Percenters, but also Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

“I didn’t bring him to the Capitol, he came himself,” Moon said.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, helped Moon with the letter. She compared Parker to retired anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel, who was once recognized in the House by former Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum.

To Parker’s supporters, including Moon, he was a victim of federal judicial overreach, a hero fighting for freedom and liberty. But to the people who called Moon afterward, Parker is a domestic terrorist, intimidating federal officials with violence and fear.

The applause by Idaho legislators appeared to endorse such an armed revolt, said Sam Mattice, a retired Bureau of Land Management biologist who sat with other retired federal and state biologists at their Tuesday morning coffee klatch.

“What does that say to all the other radicals who want to take over our federal land?” Mattice said. “As a retired federal employee, it’s killing me they can do that.”

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley.

Moon said Parker is getting a bad rap, which will come out when sealed documents are released next month that show the local sheriff standing next to him. Parker wasn’t aiming at federal agents, Moon said, only looking at them through a scope. He’s already spent six months in jail; she hopes his plea will be reversed and the charges dismissed.

“I’d recognize him (in the Legislature) again tomorrow,” Moon said.

Moon, who has a master’s degree in regional planning, said she is not against federal employees, nor the agencies that employ them. She is working on an advisory committee with the Salmon-Challis National Forest, she noted, and served on a wildfire collaborative in Stanley.

She does think federal land managers sometimes push too hard in Custer County, only 3 perecnt of which is private land and which has a natural resources economy tied to those land managers’ decisions.

“We’ve got our backs against the wall,” Moon said. “We want them to back off.”

The dismissal of the Bundy charges has elevated that family to a major voice in the debate over public lands in the West. Last weekend, Cliven and his son Ryan were in Montana on their victory tour — pushing their bizarre argument that the land where their cattle graze is not federal, but state, and that local government is the highest court in the land

It’s close enough to legal arguments made by states like Utah to make the Bundys popular among rural westerners, like those in Custer County with their “backs against the wall.”

But Cliven Bundy still owes somewhere around a million dollars in grazing fees and fines, and has his skinny cattle roaming our lands.

bill platts
Bill Platts, retired federal and state biologist. Rocky Barker rbarker@idahostatesman.com

Bill Platts is a retired federal and state biologist who grew up on a ranch near Raft River. Now 90, he remembers his grandfather’s tales of the bands of sheep — 10,000 head and larger — that would come up from California and push his grandfather’s livestock off the land.

“The Bundys want to go back to the grazing of the commons,” Platts said. “Whoever was the toughest got to graze wherever they wanted.”

Idaho ranchers now have exclusive privileges to graze under federal permits, and they don’t have to fight each other. Many feel like the fight today is with land managers and environmental groups.

That puts many in solidarity with the Bundys, as demonstrated by the lawmakers’ applause. But once the judicial injustice is addressed, and all that’s left is the Bundys’ land dispute, will the Bundys and followers like Parker once again pick up their guns and take a stand?

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker