Jeff Jardine: Cliven Bundy is far from an Old West hero

jjardine@modbee.comApril 30, 2014 

If you’ve followed the up-the-dial cable TV news stations and/or the fare on Comedy Central – at times it is difficult to tell them apart – the saga of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy probably caught your eye. This, of course, lasted until L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling out-bigoted Bundy.

Somehow, Bundy and the folks supporting him want you to believe he represents the last vestiges of the Old West, with all of its made-in-Hollywood romanticism. They portray the big, bad government beating up on the rugged individualist and self-proclaimed icon. Considering the Bureau of Land Management’s track record of hammering ranchers in that part of the country, they might have had a point had Bundy stayed current on his grazing fees. Instead, BLM officials claim he owes roughly $1 million in back fees and they intended to seize his cattle, which the agency considers intruding on federal lands.

Hence, the brouhaha that led to the standoff, which gave Bundy the stage to claim Nevada is a sovereign nation and that he doesn’t recognize the U.S. government. He rode his horse for the cameras, holding the Old Glory that represents the country he claims not to recognize as owner of the land. And I’m not sure whether that came before or after his declaration that blacks were better off as slaves picking cotton because slavery, he reasons, kept their family structures intact.

Obviously, human rights and history aren’t among his areas of expertise.

All of which brings us to the heart of today’s missive. The image of the Old West drover (the term “cowboy” pretty much was popularized in a theater near you) involved honor. You owed a bill, you paid it. You treated ladies politely – you didn’t use them as human shields, as one of the so-called militia leaders said he planned to do to keep the feds at bay in Nevada. One nervous trigger finger on either side, and it could have turned deadly.

The Bundy Bunch, for all its bravado and claims of victory, embarrassed the very culture it purports to represent.

“(The Nevada standoff) causes me some concern,” said Dick Gaiser, a cattleman and grazing permit holder who runs cattle in the Stanislaus National Forest range around the Stanislaus River’s North Fork.

Gaiser is well aware of the reputation of the BLM in Nevada. Gaiser cited a 20-year-old case involving another Nevada ranching family in which a judge last year accused the BLM of harassing the family to the point of criminal conspiracy. Bundy supporters claim the government is doing the same thing to him that it did to the Hage family. But there is a difference: Wayne Hage and his successors paid their grazing fees as determined by the executive order President Ronald Reagan signed in 1986. Grazing fees this year are $1.35 a head per month.

Bundy also has a longstanding feud with the feds. He quit paying his fees to them decades ago, proclaiming Nevada’s sovereignty and refusing to recognize the federal government, which took control of the range when it wasn’t homesteaded in the 1800s.

“Somebody had to,” said Andy Crook, whose family has run cattle in Tuolumne County and the Stanislaus National Forest for the past half-century. The family owns Meyers Ranch, which lost its 130-year-old ranch house during the Rim fire last summer. “It’s the responsibility of the federal government to administrate those lands. When this Bundy thing popped up, I thought, ‘This is just bad.’ To have an potential armed conflict out there ... The law is very clear. The BLM can remove feral cattle from an allotment. It (the standoff) was not good – so extreme.”

In fact, Bundy is the exception and not the rule when it comes to cattlemen who graze their herds on public lands. Granted, Gaiser, the Crook family, the Brennans, Sanguinettis and 17 other area permit holders in the Stanislaus National Forest deal with the U.S. Forest Service, not the BLM. They are different agencies with different management styles and different influences. But national forest lands, including wildernesses, and the BLM lands all are subject to congressional grazing guidelines.

Some permit holders descend from families that have grazed their cattle in the wilderness for more than a century, and their grazing rights remained intact even after the 1964 Wilderness Act took effect. The Sanguinettis still run cattle around Cooper Meadow, with its cabins built in 1865 and 1875.

“Our permittees are the best in the world,” said Molly Fuller, the Stanislaus forest’s Summit District ranger. “They are true stewards of the land. They are cooperative. They all pay their fees.”

The permit holders meet with Forest Service officials annually, and rangers often monitor the herds in the mountains. Over the years, some forest officials with anti-grazing sentiments have been tough on some of the permit holders, including the Crook family. Forest Service officials told the Crook family it cannot run cattle on any part of its range east of Groveland and south of Tuolumne this year because of the fire. Andy Crook said he disputes the reasons for keeping the cattle out. But the family respects the laws and works within the system. You won’t see a militia or small city of RVs and a cache of weapons invading the hills to protest.

In fact, the Nevada standoff reflects poorly on all cattle ranchers and grazing permit holders, rancher Gaiser said. “(Bundy is) taking advantage of the situation,” he said. “He’s giving everybody in grazing on public grounds a questionable name.”

Likewise, Bundy’s racist diatribes play to the redneck stereotype. Certainly there are bigots among cattlemen, Gaiser conceded, but they don’t speak for the industry. Gaiser once worked in government before focusing on ranching. He is now president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau and also heads the forest’s grazing permit holders association. Andy Crook and his nephew, Shaun Crook, both are Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, graduates. Andy Crook works for a large animal health company that simply doesn’t tolerate bigotry.

Yet some folks want to portray Bundy as a hero straight out of the Old West.

An American hero? Hardly. A squatter with a Sterling-like reputation is far more appropriate.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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