Ranchers, the Federal Government, and the Land Between Case Statement
Leisl Carr Childers

Since the armed standoff at the Bundy Ranch at Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014, I have struggled to develop a framework of thought to explain those we label rural westerners and sometimes Sagebrush Rebels, most of which are ranchers utilizing public lands, who continually advocate for the “return” of public lands to the states, for more local control of natural resources on those lands, and who vehemently oppose federal and environmentally-oriented regulations.Conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto called these individuals who used public lands grazing ranges “arrogant” and “deluded,” ascribing to them the locus of the federal land grab he so often railed against in the mid-twentieth century. In his famous tirade, “The West Against Itself,” DeVoto consistently reiterated that westerners worked hard politically to defend their right to exploit their own resources. DeVoto also emphasized that westerners advocated for this by emphasizing the necessity of home rule, or federal help without federal regulation. This bifurcation has come to signify all that is wrong with politics and public lands management.(1)

We have often agreed with DeVoto about these people, calling them welfare ranchers. But packaging public lands ranchers as the architects of a systemic effort to degrade the environment obfuscates what may be the actual problem and detaches these rural westerners from their situation in the landscape. Likewise, spinning the Sagebrush Rebellion and other movements against environmental regulation and federal control as somehow endeavors born of grassroots protest is equally fraught and overly romanticizes their role on public lands and in the nation’s economy. R. McGreggor Cawley has written about the Sagebrush Rebellion as a grassroots political response in Nevada that began in 1979 against the changing definition of conservation and the growing influence of environmental concerns in federal land use decision- making. James R. Skillen has defined the Sagebrush Rebellion as “a movement among western states to claim ownership of public lands, and more broadly, to challenge the federal government’s growing regulatory role in public lands management.” He also indicates that there were actually several of these protests throughout the twentieth century after the passage of FLPMA. But there is more to the national-level Sagebrush Rebellion than this.


DeVoto could have been talking about Cliven Bundy penning his words three decades before the Bunkerville rancher began his crusade to extricate the federal government from his ranching operations. In 1977, in the wake of the passage of the contentious Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976 which expanded the operational mandate of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversaw most public lands, Bundy was a member of the board of directors of the newly formed Nevada Cattlemen’s Association Coordination Committee’s Nevada Land Action Association. The NLAA was the state’s original Sagebrush Rebellion group and it asked Congress to launch an investigation of the BLM for “depriving Americans of freedom, rights and property value without due process of law.” Members of the NLAA complained about the tenuousness of the 10-year grazing permits, the arbitrary nature of livestock reductions, the fracturing of the grazing boards, the lack of wild horse management, and the preferential treatment and tax dollars given to wildlife interests. What the NLAA wanted was full local control, directly or through members of Congress, of grazing resources in Nevada.(2)


Though Cliven Bundy fits DeVoto’s profile of the worst kind of westerner, the rancher’s position in the Sagebrush Rebellion and at Bunkerville nearly four decades later is instructive. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, southern Nevada consolidated its water resources, concentrated and confined urban development, and created a greenbelt around the city to protect wildlife and wild spaces. This plan represented a new pattern of western land development, one that emphasized both urban growth and the preservation of natural spaces that could service a burgeoning urban population, driven by the defense and entertainment industries that demanded outdoor recreational opportunities in the Las Vegas Valley. Similar to the 1964 Classification and Multiple Use Act and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, it was designed to identify the best uses of different lands and structure multiple use accordingly, but what made it different was the ways in which it left no middle ground in rural spaces such as Bunkerville between urban development and wildland/wildlife preservation.(3)

Clark County’s Desert Conservation Program, according to the Secretary of the Interior at the time, Bruce Babbitt, used the listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species to craft a conservation plan that ensured both the urban development of the Las Vegas Valley and the development of open spaces proximate to the urban corridor for recreational use by urban populations. The conservation plan, which was enacted in the mid-1990s, mandated that grazing and other more intensive multiple use activities were to be curtailed. The plan also called for The Nature Conservancy to begin purchasing grazing privileges from willing sellers and convert them to “nonuse” status.(4) Most of the ranchers in and around Bunkerville were willing sellers, but Cliven Bundy was not and by 2014, though not quite the last rancher standing, he was at the tail end of a four-decades long diatribe about the evils of the federal government.

Bundy positioned himself in the anti-government camp, but the locus of his problem was that his ranching operation, and all the other ranchers in Clark County, were caught in between expanding urban development in Las Vegas and the need of those urban residents for outdoor recreation spaces. Urban development in the Las Vegas Valley necessitated the preservation of wildland and wildlife, and the federal government worked to facilitate private ownership to enable this development, which in turn ensured that preservation. Bundy accurately identified the federal government as the agent of this change, but the change itself he failed to understand. Decreased AUMs, decreased time on the Bunkerville allotment, increased grazing fees, had less to do with federal overreach and more to do with how increasing urban development had to be balanced against the value of open space to the urban populations driving that development. Bundy’s only legal leverage was his ownership of 160 acres of land, possession of a number of vested water rights on the grazing allotment granted to him by the state, and the hundreds of cattle he left to wander the desert, and he made the most of that.(5)

And here is where Bundy’s position must be taken seriously. The vested water rights that the Bundy family holds are still valid. The Nevada Office of the State Engineer, according to documents submitted by the Bundy family in support of their case at the December 2017 trial, in 2008 and again in 2014 reiterated their position that the office “does not have the statutory ability to reject any of Mr. Bundy’s claims based on the disposition of his grazing permit.”(6) The power of Bundy’s vested water rights cannot be ignored. While those rights stand, no one else can utilize that water without paying Bundy. So, although his ranching operation has ended and his cattle are still in trespass on the Bunkerville Allotment, his legal position requires our attention because it highlights an important hole in public lands management—land use and water use are not necessarily conjoined. In addition, there’s a great deal more to learn about the consolidation of ranching operations since the mid-1970s. Similar to the Farm Crisis in the Midwest during the early 1980s, the Sagebrush Rebellion has to be understood in terms of the global consolidation in the nation’s agricultural industry. The collapse of the beef industry into a framework dominated by four global meatpacking companies has fundamentally changed the operations of most ranchers.(7) Finally, it also bears acknowledging that these groups have been distanced from the centers of power and policy. Rural western spaces have lost population at the same time, and despite their ability to influence state-level politics and policies, rural westerners lack commensurate power to sustain that same influence at the federal-level.(8) This perhaps is one of the reasons why Bundy and those like him vilify the federal government and turn to state- and county-level governments to ameliorate their situation.

1 Bernard DeVoto, “The West Against Itself,” (January 1947) in Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick, eds., The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 69-70. In the same work, also see “Sacred Cows and Public Lands” (July 1948), 77.

2 “‘Grass Roots’ Plan Proposed by Cattlemen,” Nevada State Journal, May 15, 1976; “Land Association Elects Officers,” Nevada State Journal, December 1, 1976; “BLM Investigation Sought by Nevadans,” Reno Evening Gazette, January 17, 1977.

3 Regional Environmental Consultants, “Short-Term Habitat Conservation Plan for the Desert Tortoise in Las Vegas Valley, Clark County, Nevada,” Clark County, Nevada, January 3, 1991, i-xviii; “About Us,” Desert Conservation Program Website, http://www.clarkcountynv.gov/airquality/dcp/Pages/about.aspx.

4 Bruce Babbitt, Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America (Seattle: Island Press, 2005), 82; Regional Environmental Consultants, “Clark County Desert Conservation Plan,” Clark County, Nevada, August 8, 1994, vi-xiv.

5 This information is from the BLM’s Rangeland Administration System Reports (https://reports.blm.gov/reports.cfm?application=RAS), the State of Nevada Division of Water Resources Permit Search (http://water.nv.gov/permitsearch.aspx), and Clark County Assessor Property Records (http://www.clarkcountynv.gov/assessor/Pages/PropertyRecords.aspx).

6 Kim A. Davis to Michael M. McGreer, Letter, October 1, 2014, in Case 2:16-cr-00046-GMN-PAL Document 3090 Filed 12/29/17.

7 Stephanie Paige Ogburn, “Cattlemen Struggle Against Giant Meatpackers and Economic Squeezes,” High Country News, March 21, 2011.

8 Tim Henderson, “Rural States Trying to Stop Population Exodus,” Governing: The States and Localities, August 20, 2015 (http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.html); Alan Greenblatt, “Rural Lose People, But Not Power, Governing: The States and Localities, April 2014 (http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-rural-areas-lose-people-not-power.html).


  1. Julia Brock says:

    I am grateful to read a more nuanced take on the Sagebrush Rebellion–thank you. This makes me think, too, about the important of policy for public interpretation about agricultural or environmental history. Policy plays such an important role in this case–though it’s that being employed to support urban development rather than solely that of the federal government–and offers a much complex picture.

  2. Debra A Reid says:

    Leisl – You start your second to the last paragraph with this sentence:
    “Bundy positioned himself in the anti-government camp, but the locus of his problem was that his ranching operation, and all the other ranchers in Clark County, were caught in between expanding urban development in Las Vegas and the need of those urban residents for outdoor recreation spaces.”
    This provides a perfect example of the tangled web of public policy, private property, personal liberty, and ranching (a form of agriculture based in open-range livestock husbandry).
    You relate the Sagebrush Rebellion to the Farm Crisis in the Midwest during the early 1980s, explaining that “it has to be understood in terms of the global consolidation in the nation’s agricultural industry. The collapse of the beef industry into a framework dominated by four global meatpacking companies has fundamentally changed the operations of most ranchers.(7).” From my perspective as a child of the Farm Crisis and a professor who still teaches about the crisis in an online course in agricultural history at the University of Illinois, a couple of things central to that crisis do not seem as obvious in this Sagebrush Rebellion. First – there was no real “rebellion,” but a lot of suicide and public awareness building (help lines and Farmaid concerts). Second, agricultural economists played a huge role in perpetuating the over-extension of farmer capital, in combination with the out-of-control interest rates on mortgages. The influence of range management experts needs to be developed more in your case study to make this comparison more substantive. Third, the collapse of grain commodity markets due to President Carter’s grain embargo, combined with the precarious financial position of farmers holding huge mortgages, left farmers with inadequate income to sustain their operations. It is important to recognize that the global market for wheat had existed in North America since the 1600s, so global consolidation of the “nation’s” agricultural industry was not new. The French facilitated wheat plantations in the Illinois country starting in the late 1600s. Mercantilism tried to limit international sales of wheat from the English colonies in North America to England and its Caribbean colonies starting during the late 1600s.
    The Sagebrush Rebellion also begs the question: What does it tell us about changes in populist revolts since “the first” – Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. Do agrarian rebellions remain a barometer of the degree to which local residents (often but not always landowners) feel that government does not support their cause?
    This case study makes clear the link between rights of access that urban dwellers expect to rural lands and the defensive posturing of others who claim these contested lands and their own. All seem to dismiss the original landowners (American Indians) and instead wrestle for authority over property that the U.S. government holds and has protected as public use. It’s not the same as the tenancy in common at the heart of Julia Brock’s case study where many own one acreage, but instead, it’s a legal precedent that land owned by one is really for the use of many. Private ownership of land does not protect the landowner from the right of others to access that land through easements or through common use. Add in the “vested interest” Bundy had in non-renewable resources like water, and the need of his cattle to that resource, as well as urban dwellers reliance on that water, and its the perfect storm over private-public land use.
    This clear case study provides a foundation for public interpretation of comparable issues but in places and times far removed from today’s arid Nevada. The sort of thing that supports the idea of endless stories as Cathy Stanton describes them in her case study.

  3. Debra A Reid says:

    Leisl and all –
    Re. agrarian revolutions and the Farm Crisis of 1979-1980s, Tractorcade might be the best example.

  4. Al Hester says:

    Your case study is wonderful and it’s great to have one that focuses on the region and people around Las Vegas. It’s definitely instructive, but I wonder what methods and mechanisms you envision for getting this out to the public? While it may be asking too much because of past conflict, is there any chance that the BLM, the NPS, or the state (Gold Butte NM, or maybe Valley of Fire SP?) would be interested in taking on public interpretation on this topic? I’m not that familiar with the area, the agencies involved, and places where it might be possible to do this. But it seems like there might be some exciting possibilities here. Thanks for sharing this case study and I look forward to hearing more about it.

  5. Amrys Williams says:

    I really learned something here—and I was fascinated by how the FLPMA did not account for any sort of middle landscape. Ranchers, and agriculture in general, got left out. It’s like that working landscape got totally erased or rendered invisible.

    I’m grateful that your piece brings livestock and grazing into our conversation about agriculture. I was curious about how you saw the stakes and opportunities for public history work that deals with this episode and these issues. Where are the places and sites where this interpretation can happen?

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