Letters from the West

Silent ranchers allow Bundys to be their ambassadors

Ammon Bundy speaks to reporters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early January.
Ammon Bundy speaks to reporters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early January. AP

To the American public, Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy have become the face of Western ranching.

The two sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy remain in possession of federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. They’ve captured international attention by purporting to speak for the issues and concerns of ranchers. They appear on camera in big brown hats seeking to tap into American’s deep consciousness and love for the cowboy.

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador calls their actions “civil disobedience.” But civil rights heroes of the past didn’t carry a gun or threaten violence.

The Bundys are all hat and no cattle.

Ammon Bundy runs a valet car fleet in a Phoenix, Ariz., suburb, and Ryan Bundy owns a construction company in Cedar City, Utah. Their father is the one with the ranch, and he’s rejected every basic responsibility all other ranchers have accepted since the Taylor Grazing Act was passed by Congress in 1934.

The ranchers I know are businessmen and businesswomen. They worry about the market. They worry about when they will be allowed to turn out their livestock in the spring. They worry about where they are going to get feed after fire burns over their rangeland.

Most of them also worry about the health of the ecosystem, either because they are good stewards or because federal-land managers and groups such as the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project are looking over their shoulders. Most of these ranchers grumble about both, but over the past 20 years the competing sides have found a lot of common ground.

Ranchers, conservation groups and the federal agencies have put together programs that are placing water back in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi rivers to help endangered salmon and steelhead. They worked together to put in place a conservation plan for sage grouse across 11 states that, while challenging, will keep ranchers on the land and improve sage grouse habitat enough to keep the birds off the federal endangered species list.

But these very real rancher issues aren’t the issues the Bundys talk about. The Bundys say they want the federal government to give the wildlife refuge back to the states, local governments and ranchers. The rhetoric is remarkably close to that of leaders in Utah and other Western states, who use an equally convoluted argument to demand the federal government transfer federal land to the states.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs an influential congressional committee, pushes his own plan to “return these lands back to the rightful owners.” The problem with all of these arguments is that the land never belonged to the states. The people with the rightful claim of having it before the feds are the Indians.

In all the U.S., there are about 20,000 ranchers who hold grazing permits on federal land. This is not a big group. These ranchers represent about 3 percent of the beef raised in the U.S., so their economic impact isn’t giant nationally.

So, like other rural Americans, they need to make their case. They need to tell their story to the larger urban populations — and to their own states as well as back East.

Despite the hurdles, being able to graze their livestock on public land is a great deal they can’t live without.

For ranchers to tell their story effectively, they have to be able to call out the bad actors. That’s something I have found ranchers have an especially hard time doing, outside of their own circle.

On Thursday, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and House Speaker Scott Bedke, a rancher himself, each wisely spoke out against the armed occupation and for the rule of law. But Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador described the occupation as “civil disobedience.”

Remember, Bundy didn’t pay his grazing fees. And because it is public land he grazes, he doesn’t have to pay property taxes. This is the arrangement the Bundys call tyranny.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Obama administration have rightfully been criticized for not bringing the Bundys and others to justice after the April 2014 confrontation with federal officials at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch. An Intelligence Assessment from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, dated July 22, 2014, said this “perceived victory by militia extremists” would inspire more unrest.

It has.

But ranchers and other Western leaders share some of the blame, too, by allowing these extremists to speak for their frustrations with federal policies, without clearly rejecting the extremists’ lawlessness.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column said the Bundys are comparing themselves to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. A Twitter post purporting to be from Ammon Bundy and making that connection was later proved a hoax.