BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Less than a week after being acquitted at a trial over last winter’s armed occupation of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge, Nevada rancher Ryan Bundy said another protest action will be justified if President Obama goes ahead with plans to create a huge national monument abutting the Bundy family’s ranch here.
“Absolutely! That’s the best thing in the world for [people] to do,” Bundy said Monday in a telephone interview from an Oregon jail, where he is being held pending a February trial related to a separate armed standoff in 2014 with federal agents at his family’s ranch.
“Read the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “It says right there that if the government becomes abusive, it’s our right and our duty to abolish that government. If the government won’t restrain itself, whatever happens is their own fault.”
The suggestion of a potential uprising underscores the extent to which two competing political movements — defiance of federal authority, and Obama’s determination to permanently protect vast federal lands — could collide next in this arid patch of land 110 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Federal officials were alarmed by the jury’s decision to acquit Bundy, his brother Ammon and five others who staged a 41-day occupation early this year at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon.
While supporters of the Bundys hailed the surprise verdict as a victory against what they see as federal overreach, federal officials said it could embolden anyone with a grievance to take over government property and endanger federal workers.
Ryan Bundy is angry that Obama, before he leaves office, may use his executive power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to impose new restrictions on Gold Butte, a 350,000-acre parcel of pristine desert wilderness just south of the Bundy family’s ranch.
Obama administration officials said federal officials were rattled by the Oregon verdict, but individuals briefed on the process say the White House is pushing ahead with plans to create a monument that would permanently preserve a federally owned tract filled with soaring peaks, exotic red sandstone formations, an imperiled desert tortoise population and thousands of ancient Native American rock etchings called petroglyphs.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has worked to protect the area for years, has described a monument designation as one of his final goals before retiring this year.
Bundy, 44, wouldn’t say whether he and his family would encourage some kind of anti-government action over Gold Butte, because “I never say what we will do.” But asked whether violence was ever justified against an abusive government, Bundy said: “Ask George Washington.”
Repeating an argument common in the West but disputed by most mainstream constitutional scholars, Bundy said the Constitution does not grant the federal government power to own large tracts of land, nor does the president have legal authority to create national monuments. Bundy said that creating the Gold Butte monument would be an abuse of presidential power and a valuation of tourism and endangered species over the economic needs of struggling communities.
“The government should be scared. They are in the wrong. The land does not belong to the government. The land belongs to the people of Clark County, not to the people of the United States,” said Bundy, who spoke over the phone as his wife, Angie, sat nearby beneath a shady mesquite tree at the family’s 160-acre ranch on the parched banks of the Virgin River.
“The only peaceful resolution to all this is for them to obey the Constitution,” he said. “Read it, understand it, abide by it. There doesn’t have to be violence. None of that has to happen if they would just abide by the Constitution.”
That kind of talk is exactly what officials have worried about after the Oregon verdict. They fear that a potential flash point for anti-government action could be Obama’s fast-paced creation of national monuments where grazing, timber-cutting, mining and other commercial activities are generally prohibited. Obama has already created or expanded 27 national monuments, more than any other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For many generations, ranchers in Bunkerville have paid a fee to graze their cattle on the Gold Butte land, but nearly all of them allowed the Nature Conservancy and other groups to buy out their permits years ago. The Bundy family, which has fewer than 600 head of cattle, is the last full-time ranching family in the area. Their animals still graze for free, as they have for years, in defiance of federal courts twice ordering the Bundys to desist. The family has refused to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines.
When officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service tried to finally remove the cattle in 2014, they were met by the Bundy family and hundreds of armed supporters.
Fearing bloodshed, authorities eventually retreated. Earlier this year, family patriarch Cliven Bundy, along with sons Ammon and Ryan, and 16 others, were charged with an array of federal firearms, conspiracy and assault counts in the 2014 incident. They face trial in Nevada in February.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has called the Nevada standoff the worst moment of her tenure. And after last week’s acquittal in Oregon, she warned her employees, including those at the BLM, to “take care of yourselves” and “remain vigilant.”
A coalition of environmentalists, tribal groups, academics and some business owners eagerly support the Gold Butte plan.
“Gold Butte has captivating landscapes that Americans across the country would love to explore,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview. “But it’s also home to thousands of archaeological sites that currently have no protection and that could be enjoyed and studied for future generations.”
In the two years since BLM staffers withdrew from the area, there has been vandalism, graffiti and habitat degradation through off-road vehicle use, according to a report by Friends of Gold Butte, a group that supports a national monument for the wilderness.
Reid has been the highest-profile advocate for the project. He has devoted much of his career to brokering such deals: During his 34 years in Congress, the amount of federal land off limits to development in Nevada has grown from 67,000 acres to 4.8 million acres.
Speaking on the Senate floor just after Bundys were arrested this year, Reid said: “I’ve tried to protect Gold Butte for a long time. And the reason we haven’t been able to do anything to this point is the Bundy boys and their pals. So that’s why I’m grateful for the Antiquities Act. Because of this legislation and because of the fact that the Bundys are in jail, I’m going to reach out to the White House.”
As he has personally lobbied the president, Reid has framed the issue as a test of federal will. “Let’s tell others how important this is,” he said during a news conference in August, “and tell people to keep their damn hands off public lands.”
Republicans have opposed Obama’s use of “unilateral” executive power to create national monuments. “The establishment of any new national monument in the State of Nevada, regardless of location, ought to be considered in the public Congressional process,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) wrote in an April letter to the president.
On the Bundy ranch, Angie Bundy said that “Harry Reid has no right to be saying those things.” She said she suspects that the federal government is trying to claim more land to keep control of uranium and other minerals. She said federal officials should respect local ranchers more and recognize that they are far more effective stewards of the land than “bureaucrats from back East.”
“They should let people who have been protecting this land for generations take care of it,” she said. “And they shouldn’t be sending in heavily armed military forces to point weapons at a rancher who hasn’t paid his taxes.”
On Monday, Reid said in a statement that the Gold Butte monument would not be derailed by threats of resistance from “radicals . . . intent on using public lands like Gold Butte for their own selfish purposes.”
That kind of talk infuriates Duane Magoon, a rancher and Bunkerville town official who was raised by the Bundy family. He said he doubted that local people would rise up against the government over Gold Butte, as they did in Oregon or at the Bundy ranch in 2014. But, he said, “you never know.”
“Why would the feds even want to find out? Is the government stupid?” he said. “They are aware that we are upset. Why would they rock that boat? If something happens, it’s because of them.”
Deep in the heart of Gold Butte one hot afternoon this week, Jim Boone hiked among the otherworldly swirling and jagged sandstone formations known as Little Finland. He admired petroglyphs carved into black stone and salt formations that turned the rock a vibrant shade of blue.
Boone, an ecologist and writer who chronicles Gold Butte’s wildlife and history, said lush vegetation covered this area thousands of years ago. But over the centuries, the land has dried out, and today the vegetation is mainly prickly brush and creosote bushes.
Not far from the Bundy ranch, Boone pulled off the gravel road to look at about 20 of the family’s cattle grazing on the parched land.
“In a way, you can understand the Bundys,” he said. “The world is changing all around them, the environment and the politics, and all they want to do is have the world stay the same and let their grandchildren do exactly what they did.”
Eilperin reported from Washington.