The American Historian

Western Resistance to Federal Land Control Didn’t Start or End with Cliven Bundy

Joseph E. Taylor III

Last spring, a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy captured national attention when he defied the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and precipitated an armed standoff with federal agents. Bundy’s moment in the spotlight was brief. Yet the episode—and Americans’ responses to it—raise questions about our historic relationships with the federal spaces we call the public or people’s lands. Cliven Bundy’s fifteen minutes of fame have passed, but the western resistance he personified persists in ways that illustrate why these conflicts still fester.

Bundy’s conflict was rooted in his long-term refusal to pay fees to graze cattle on BLM lands. When BLM agents tried to seize Bundy’s cattle, his allies menaced federal agents with loaded guns. For a few weeks, the news media, in particular Fox News, were captivated by Bundy’s resistance to environmental regulation and federal police powers. Bundy’s stint as a media darling ended, however, when he wondered aloud whether African Americans are “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”[1] Seemingly overnight Bundy went from right-wing hero to left-wing punchline, culminating in early May when President Barack Obama remarked at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “As a general rule, things don’t end well if the sentence starts, ‘Let me tell you something I know about the Negro.’”[2]

It was pretty much a dead heat between the Right and the Left as they raced to condemn Bundy. Bloggers and tweeters such as Chauncey DeVega and Modupe Labode highlighted the ties between racism and antigovernment sentiment, while Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and Republican party presidential hopeful Rand Paul denounced the rancher they had once championed. Journalists added fuel by noting errors in Bundy’s historical claims to the disputed lands. All in all, the pillorying was remarkably bipartisan.[3]

Soon enough, though, nearly everyone lost sight of the original conflict. The Bundy standoff revealed that Americans’ attention to the nagging problems regarding federal sovereignty of western lands is fleeting. Bundy remains a conspicuous example of a disturbing strain of western protest best described as dumb, bigoted, and violent, but he is hardly representative of all western resistance. Many who were appalled by Bundy’s racism nonetheless sympathized with his complaints about alleged transgressions of Tenth Amendment policing powers. It is not just fire-breathing libertarians who see basic constitutional contradictions in the federal government’s vast land claims across the American West.

Westerners have protested these withholdings for a century. Beginning in the 1890s governors and grazers complained about land withdrawals and distant regulation. In 1930 President Herbert Hoover formed a commission to consider ceding some lands to states. In 1946 Congress responded to renewed complaints about regulatory overreach by merging the Grazing Service and General Land Office to create the BLM, now the largest landholder in North America. In the 1970s, participants in what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion called for the transfer of federal lands to states, and President Ronald Reagan responded in 1981 by appointing James Watt, president of the libertarian Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), as Interior Secretary. The Wise Use Movement criticized the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, and President George W. Bush appointed Gale Norton, another MSLF lawyer, as Interior Secretary in 2001. Westerners also found success in the federal courts. In the 1980s the Nevadan rancher Wayne Hage sued and eventually won water rights on U.S. Forest Service land. In the 2000s, Idahoans Michael and Chantell Sackett won the right to appeal Environmental Protection Agency rulings. Hage, the Sacketts, and other westerners shared Bundy’s views about federal sovereignty and environmental regulations. But unlike Bundy, they worked within the legal system—a distinction that is lost by focusing too much on Bundy and his extralegal tactics—and sometimes won significant concessions.

The success of some western resistance efforts underscores the marginalization of figures such as Bundy, who, although scholars rarely frame them in such terms, are part of a global, political, and ecological struggle between subalterns and the state. Environmental battles are rarely just about saving nature—they are also about for whom it will be saved. Social and cultural values are embedded in ecological policies, and marginal groups—including rural westerners—often bear the costs inordinately. Political ecologists mostly focus on contests in the Third World, but North American conservation has witnessed similar struggles. Canada and the United States dispossessed native peoples to create parks and wilderness areas; whites evicted ethnic and racial minorities to control commercial fisheries; and sportsmen purged smallholders to cultivate hunting and angling paradises. Many conflicts pitted work against play in a battle that began with the English and European enclosure movements and now extends around the world. And like dispossessed people elsewhere, rural Americans and Canadians—both on the Right and on the Left—have resorted to violence when legal avenues of resistance vanished. The irony, according to the geographer James McCarthy, is that Bundy has more in common with environmental groups such as EarthFirst!, the Animal Liberation Front, and the Earth Liberation Front than we usually recognize.

Another blind spot has been our inattention to political economy. Most conservation history focuses on charismatic figures such as John Muir, the naturalist; Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. Forest Service chief; or David Brower, the environmental activist—and on morality plays such as the battle to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in California or the campaign to prevent the construction of Echo Park Dam in Colorado. We know about the goals, tactics, and social and ecological effects of Progressive Era conservation, but we know little about the sausage-making process by which Congress wrote and passed those policies. In fact lawmakers often supported bills because they served agendas that had little to do with saving nature. Their most frequent concern, the one that foregrounds political economy, is how the public lands became a means to defray taxes.

Federal legislators have always had a fiscal interest in the public domain; it first emerged as an alternative to imposing taxes with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; by 1900, millions of acres had been capitalized as resources or scenery. Making the rest of it pay gained urgency as Progressive Era federal budgets skyrocketed.[4] It was Congress’ decision to turn the public domain into a cash cow that made federal conservation so controversial in the West. Permanent leasing of the public domain threatened state and local political economies. As Colorado governor John Shafroth noted in 1911, leasing “would not only deprive the States of the means of raising the necessary revenues to establish and maintain good government, but [conservationists] propose to make revenue for the Federal Treasury by taxing the natural resources of the West.” House debates raged over whether revenues should go to state or federal coffers, and bill passage often hinged on the principle of sharing the receipts with states and counties from which monies came. As the historian Karen R. Merrill explains, leasing also reshaped the political economy of private lands. Federal grazing permits evolved into a form of fungible property that could “be transferred from one rancher to another along with the sale” of lands attached to that permit. Private property fused with access to federal lands in ways that entangled the public domain, economies, tax bases, and social services.[5]

The political economy of federal lands is crucial background for thinking about Cliven Bundy. Bundy’s racism may have marginalized him, but his ecological and fiscal struggles resonated with people who depend on federal lands. Historian Leisl Carr Childers has shown that the Bundys are multigenerational ranchers who never benefitted from federal conservation. In the 1930s the Taylor Grazing Act closed access to northern Arizona lands they had used since the 1910s; in the 1970s, expansion of Lake Mead National Recreation Area closed ranges they had leased since the 1950s; in the 1990s, recreation and species protection rules further reduced their access. It is hard to feel much sympathy for Cliven Bundy, but he is not wrong in claiming that federal conservation harmed his business and eroded his assets. The Bundys are a microcosm of how conservation’s costs have been borne mainly by rural smallholders.

The Bundys also exemplify broader confusions about federal lands. Like others in the Sovereign Citizens Movement, the Bundys believe that Clark County, Nevada, and Clark County Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie have true authority over those lands. The Bundys “ordered” Gillespie to arrest BLM agents for “impersonating Police officers.”[6] Gillespie balked in part because he knows Nevada, like other public lands states, funds its schools and roads with receipts from the BLM fees that Bundy refused to pay. In the eyes of critics Bundy is a deadbeat westerner who exemplifies a regional tendency to take federal monies with one hand while defying federal authority with the other. Tom Toles caricatured this view in a 1993 cartoon depicting “welfare logging, welfare mining and welfare ranching.” Western hypocrisy is a staple of urban environmentalism. It erupts in newspaper comments, environmentalist alerts, and academic blogs. In response to Bundy’s lamentation about his fiscal plight, historian Ann M. Little wrote in her blog Historiann, boo-hoo-freakin’-hoo . . . things are tough all over.”[7] This is not just poor form. Such dismissals of poor, inordinately unemployed ruralites elide the links between the tax-exempt status of federal lands and the rural West’s struggle to fund social services from ever-shrinking tax bases.

Finding a way to discuss federal lands is further complicated by the simplistic depiction of those spaces as the public or people’s lands. As the communications scholar Christine Oravec wrote in 2002, the conservation movement invoked these terms to conflate “the public interest [with] its language and ideology, an appropriation that continues to this day.”[8] Both terms connote collective associations: public implies the shared benefits of scientific management; people implies a general rather than special interest. Neither term acknowledges how federal lands are often managed by the state to generate revenue. Admittedly, there is no romance in this framing, but it better captures Bundy’s actual trespass, which was not paying up. Thus the political economy of federal lands is an intrinsic, if largely unacknowledged, element of environmental politics, and historians still have much to teach, and Americans much to learn, about federal lands in the West if we hope to undermine the tortured rhetoric and reasoning that regularly erupts around these spaces. Until then we are certain to witness ever more Cliven Bundys—right and left alike—enjoying their fifteen minutes of factually challenged, sometimes violent fame.

JOSEPH E. TAYLOR III is a former Canada Research Chair in Environmental History and currently a professor of history at Simon Fraser University. He has written widely on the history of fisheries, recreation, and western gentrification, including the award-winning Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (1999) and Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk (2010). He is currently writing “Voice of the West,” a biography of the Colorado congressman Edward Taylor.


[1] Mark Berman, “Cliven Bundy Wonders if Black People Were ‘Better Off as Slaves,’” Washington Post, April 24, 2014.

[2]“Transcript: President Obama speaks at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner,” Washington Post, May 4, 2014.

[3]Bundy continued to lash out at federal authorities, and in October he teamed with Independent American party candidate Kamau Bakari, an African American, to challenge Attorney General Eric Holder for supposedly calling “all white folks cowards.”

[4]In 1912 Wisconsin congressman Irvine Lenroot, a key conservationist, complained that if Congress had given away less of the public domain “we would not be inquiring in which direction to turn in order to secure revenue sufficient to run the Government from year to year.”

[5] Karen R. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meanings: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them (2002), 61.

[6] J. J. MacNab, “Context Matters: The Cliven Bundy Standoff—Part 3,”Forbes, May 6, 2014.

[7] “Being Cliven Bundy,” Historiann, April 26, 2014.

[8] Christine Oravec, “Science, Public Policy, and the ‘Spirit of the People’: The Rhetoric of Progressive Conservation,” in Rhetoric and Reform in the Progressive Era, vol. 6, ed. J. Michael Hogan (2002), 104.