John L. Smith: The Pros And Cons Of The Bundy Ranch Standoff


Associated Press

An unnamed armed protester near Bunkerville in April 2014.

The struggle over federal public land policy in Nevada and elsewhere in the West continues to provide rich material for a variety of talented writers.

Books about the standoff between backers of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 have been published.

The takeover of the Malheur wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, which was spearheaded by Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy's son, is the focus of other books.

Longtime Nevada resident and journalist John L. Smith believes the fascination with Bundy, the standoff, and all the books that have come for it are tied with the fascination people have with the image of the West in general and the western rancher in particular.

Ranching is no longer a large part of Nevada's economy but it is still tied to the state's image. But most of the state's ranchers don't grab headlines because as Smith points out most follow the rules and pay their grazing fees.

Cliven Bundy, however, didn't pay his grazing fees. He doesn't believe the federal government has the right to charge the fees or manage public lands in Nevada.

“This struggle between these two very different views of the world really resonated throughout the country because most folks from the East don’t really understand how big the West is," Smith said, "They think of the West as a postcard and what it is a very, very big place and federal land control in Nevada has been controversial for a long time and I think that has created a kind of fascination or rekindled a fascination that is sellable”

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Smith believes people became entranced by the Bundy story in part because they really didn't understand what was going on and because it was a bit of an oddity.

“Here we are in the modern era and this fella with a cowboy hat on says, ‘The federal government is picking on me and they’re going to take my cows away,’” he said.

The Bundys used social media to get out their message about the seizure of their cattle and that message was picked up by right-wing media at a time when American politics were trending to the right, Smith said.

He said a lot of the authors he has read are trying to get at that moment in American history and put it into context with the election of President Donald Trump just a few years later.

But there is also the subtext of public lands in the West, how they are used, who can use them, who can protect them and who can profit from them that has been a constant battle in Nevada since it became a state.

James Pogue - “Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West”

“He’s a young writer and a very talented writer. You would have to say there is a kind of gonzonishness to that book. He’s fascinated by this phenomenon of federal public land in the West,” Smith said.

Pogue spent a great deal of time with Ammon Bundy, interviewing him for several hours. The book is focused on the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But the book is "not down the middle," Smith said, instead, Pogue takes a more left of center approach with an eye to preservation of western landscapes instead of mixed use.

Christopher Ketcham - “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalize and Corruption Are Ruining the American West”

“He does a bigger focus on the history of public land issues and controversies. He noticed what a lot of people notice when they study the issue that the West has been used for gain, economic gain, ranchers, miners, loggers and such for a very long time.”

Ketcham's book is also focused on the Oregon standoff but takes a much larger focus on public land issues in general. 

Anthony McCann -“Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff”

“It is a different tone. If those others are more from that immersion journalism, seat-of-the-pants, gonzo journalism this is more a poetic touch,” Smith said of the book that will be released in July.

Smith said the reason it is more poetic is McCann is a poet. He takes a different approach that readers might fight "refreshing."

John Temple - “Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement” 

“It is interesting. Some of the research is fascinating. A lot of folks have made a connection between the Bundy’s presence and the standoff with militias themselves. I’m not sure that there is evidence that they were always holding hands,” Smith said.

Unlike the others, this book focuses on the Bunkerville standoff. Smith said the author is not sympathetic to the Bundys in this book. The book explores the connections between the Bundys and the militias that showed up to help. 

Michael Stickler - “Cliven Bundy: American Patriot”

“Clearly takes up his side of the story. Also, provides a reminder as you read it… Bundy has been in ranching for a very long time. He’s tied to that land very closely, clearly,” Smith said.

The book is endorsed by Bundy and tells his story. Smith said it includes transcripts from the trial and provides Bundy's take on public lands and federal control. 

Smith admits what Bundy says maybe persuasive to some people it has not persuaded any judges. His court cases against the federal government have been repeatedly rejected. 

Shawna Cox - “Last Rancher Standing”

“She is very focused on that federal land issue, clearly from the Bundy standpoint, no question about it. You would say almost radically so. If the other writers are way out West in the left then she is certainly on the right end of it,” Smith said.

Smith said that Cox is very close to the Bundy family and was arrested along with Ryan and Ammon Bundy during the Oregon standoff. She was actually a witness to the death of LaVoy Finicum.

Her book is self-published but cleanly edited, according to Smith.

LaVoy Finicum - “Only by Blood and Suffering” 

“This novel… is very didactic. He mixes his characters. The characters are essentially representative of his really libertarian beliefs,” Smith said.

The author was one of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He was shot and killed by Oregon State Police when he and others left the refuge and were chased down by authorities. The occupiers stopped for law enforcement but it was Finicum who got out of his truck and confronted the officers.

Smith said the book is not for the weak of stomach and has a lot of death and fatalism in it. 

“But it’s an interesting read from a guy who played out his own end, his own kind of riding off into the sunset moment when he got out of that pickup truck in Oregon and walked right into it.”

After reading several books about the Bundys, the Bunkerville standoff, the Oregon standoff and the fall out from it, Smith has not changed his mind on the whole ordeal but he did find it interesting to see how different people's perspectives can be about the same events.

“You saw these people all Americans… everyone shows up. Some show up with rifles. Others show up with placards to wave or Gadson flags or American flags and other people show up to gawk at the crazies," he said.

And Smith wasn't just reading all of these books to get a refresher on a story he's covered from the beginning, he is doing research for his own book about the Bundys.

“This is a Nevada story that has repeated itself every generation," he said.


John L. Smith, contributor, State of Nevada

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