Years af­ter oc­cu­pa­tion, Bundy faces new stand­off: One of ideas

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY NI­COLE BLAN­CHARD nblan­chard@ida­hostates­man.com

The first sign that you’ve ar­rived at the Bundy fam­ily’s Em­mett home is a poster board af­fixed to the fence in front of a small ap­ple or­chard. Scrawled in Sharpie is the phrase, “Sun­light is the best dis­in­fec­tant.”

It’s a motto of sorts. Am­mon Bundy calls him­self a “sun­light kind of guy.” Be­fore his fam­ily’s in­fa­mous stand­offs near Bunkerville, Ne­vada, and Burns, Ore­gon, he was liv­ing in the dark, he said. Now he’s got a new view on life that he’s ea­ger to share, he said, and some Ida­hoans are ea­ger to lis­ten.

It’s been nearly three years since Bundy, 43, led a group of protesters to oc­cupy the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge — first in protest of the gov­ern­ment’s treat­ment of a fel­low ranch­ing fam­ily, then in protest of fed­eral land own­er­ship.

It’s been 11 months since his charges for his fam­ily’s 2014 con­fronta­tion with fed­eral agents on their Ne­vada ranch over cat­tle graz­ing ended in a mis­trial. The judge ruled prose­cu­tors com­mit­ted “gross mis­con­duct” when they with­held ev­i­dence from the de­fense.

Bundy said his pri­or­ity now is spend­ing time with his wife and six chil­dren. But rem­nants of the stand­offs still bub­ble up each day.

“I’ll al­ways get some­one that calls me,” Bundy said at his home in mid-oc­to­ber, af­ter catch­ing up with a friend call­ing from fed­eral prison. “Life has never, ever been the same — in a good and a hard way. I think it’ll take years and years to kind of dis­solve.”

And in many ways, he doesn’t want it to dis­solve. Bundy ac­cepts speak­ing en­gage­ments across the West at con­fer­ences and ral­lies that touch on gun rights, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and agri­cul­ture — some of them con­tro­ver­sial. He of­ten tells the

sto­ries of the stand­offs and the sub­se­quent tri­als. And, of course, he ad­vo­cates the view that has come to be synony­mous with the Bundy fam­ily: that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has no author­ity to own or man­age land in the states.

That’s not to say he’s anti-gov­ern­ment, Bundy said. He reached out to the States­man in Septem­ber to dis­pute that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion in an ar­ti­cle on a lo­cal Sec­ond Amend­ment rally.

“I be­lieve that we have to have gov­ern­ment,” Bundy said. “I be­lieve that it has to be ac­count­able, and it has to be lim­ited, and it has to be for the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the in­di­vid­ual. Oth­er­wise there’s no need for it, and ac­tu­ally be­comes more de­struc­tive than not hav­ing it in the first place.”

Bundy es­poused some vari­a­tion of these prin­ci­ples in Bunkerville and Burns. Now he takes the mes­sage to Utah, Mon­tana, Idaho. At an April stop in Modesto, Cal­i­for­nia, Bundy called the state’s well-doc­u­mented wa­ter is­sues “a lie,” claimed ice from as­ter­oids re­plen­ishes the Earth’s wa­ter and said en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are out to “en­tirely de­stroy the hap­pi­ness of hu­man life,” the Modesto Bee re­ported.

“My only goal in speak­ing is to give peo­ple a choice,” Bundy told the States­man.

He doesn’t feel like he had a choice — not “when you see an army come against your fam­ily.”

“It pushes you to do some­thing,” Bundy said.

And when faced with the choice to stand against the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Bundy said he’d do it again.

“When a cir­cum­stance comes up, I be­lieve that you’ll know and feel whether it’s time to stand or not. There is proof that say­ing no and mean­ing no (works). So if it comes to that, I’ll keep mak­ing that stand. Be­cause that’s how I be­lieve things are re­ally changed,” he said.

Bundy points to Martin Luther King Jr. and to Rosa Parks, both ar­rested in the pur­suit of civil rights.

“That is the way you change gov­ern­ment,” Bundy said.

The Bundys have be­come the lat­est face of a move­ment that traces back to the Sage­brush Re­bel­lion of the 1970s. But Am­mon Bundy said he never meant for that to hap­pen. That’s de­spite call­ing oth­ers to the Mal­heur Refuge through the Bundy Ranch web­site. And, it’s de­spite coun­sel­ing other ranch­ers — like the Ham­mond fam­ily, whose im­pris­on­ment was at the cen­ter of the Mal­heur stand­off — to stand their ground when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment comes knock­ing.

“I haven’t wanted to say I’m cre­at­ing a move­ment or my fam­ily’s cre­at­ing a move­ment. It was re­ally just an ef­fort to sur­vive,” Bundy said.

But that’s how many oth­ers in Idaho see it — sup­port­ers and crit­ics alike.

Mike Stick­ler is a

Ne­vada con­sul­tant who was con­victed of fraud and met Cliven Bundy in prison. Stick­ler wrote a book on the Bundys’ ex­pe­ri­ence in Bunkerville, where fed­eral agents tried to round up Cliven Bundy’s cat­tle af­ter he re­fused to pay fees for graz­ing them on fed­eral land — to the tune of about $1 mil­lion, his lawyer es­ti­mated last year in an in­ter­view with the Las Ve­gas Sun.

Mar­ket re­search con­ducted by Stick­ler’s pub­lisher for “Cliven Bundy: Amer­i­can Pa­triot” es­ti­mated those sym­pa­thetic with the fam­ily num­ber around 500,000 na­tion­wide. Stick­ler be­lieves that num­ber is grow­ing.

“There’s Bundy fans and there’s Bundy haters,” Stick­ler said. “Then there’s this vast mid­dle that just doesn’t know much about them.”

The Bundys’ “fans” are fa­natic. They’re savvy on the de­tails. At an Oc­to­ber stop in Mars­ing on Stick­ler’s book tour, the 30-plus at­ten­dees read­ily jumped into the dis­cus­sion to talk tri­als, sen­tences and stand­offs. Some of them wit­nessed it first­hand.

“I went up to (Mal­heur) to be peace­ful, not to get into a gun bat­tle,” said Robert Jones af­ter Stick­ler’s pre­sen­ta­tion ended. “Now ev­ery­thing has changed.”

Jones said all his mis­con­cep­tions of the protesters op­er­at­ing a “crazy mili­tia” went out the win­dow dur­ing his visit. The Bundys, he said, un­der­stood the frus­tra­tions he’d al­ways had with gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties.

“I would say that you have a move­ment among the peo­ple in the North­west who feel dis­en­fran­chised,” said Kevin Miller, a friend of Am­mon’s and a con­ser­va­tive talk show host on Boise’s 580 KIDO.

“Their story res­onates with the self-re­liance (Ida­hoans have). Many peo­ple have dealt with the (Bureau of Land Man­age­ment) and want to stand up like Cliven did,” Miller said.

Erik Molvar, di­rec­tor of graz­ing watch­dog Western Wa­ter­sheds Project, said some ranch­ers are fol­low­ing in Cliven Bundy’s foot­steps.

“It’s not just the Bundys. Tres­pass graz­ing is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant across the West, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is do­ing pre­cious lit­tle to en­force the terms of its agree­ments with ranch­ers,” Molvar said.

The out­come of the Bundys’ tri­als, he said, “make oth­ers feel that there is a lack of en­force­ment out there, and that’s prob­lem­atic.”po­lar­iz­ing prin­ci­ples­the Bundy fam­ily’s core view of fed­eral land own­er­ship has been re­jected mul­ti­ple times in U.S. courts. But it res­onates with cer­tain Ida­hoans al­ready wor­ried about gov­ern­ment over­reach.

“I think our gov­ern­ment has got­ten so far away from its pur­pose in every as­pect of our lives,” said Thelma Davis, a fam­ily friend of the Bundys who now lives in Cald­well. Davis at­tended Stick­ler’s Mars­ing book tour date and later spoke to the States­man via phone.

“Ev­ery­thing we start to do (on our land), the gov­ern­ment tells us we can’t do it. You own the land, but the gov­ern­ment con­trols it,” Davis said.

Mar­lene Moore, of Mars­ing, also at­tended Stick­ler’s talk. In a phone in­ter­view, she said she backs the Bundys com­pletely. In an in­ter­view that ref­er­enced a long-run­ning con­spir­acy the­ory in­volv­ing the U.N., Moore said she wor­ries pri­vate land will be seized by the gov­ern­ment and ru­ral Ida­hoans will be slowly pushed to­ward ur­ban cen­ters.

“The gov­ern­ment, the BLM think they own these lands, and they don’t,” Moore said. “If we al­low the gov­ern­ment to con­tinue in this man­ner, it’s go­ing to af­fect all prop­erty.”

Fed­eral skep­ti­cism is a be­drock of Idaho pol­i­tics, but most don’t fol­low it to the ex­tent the Bundys do.

While in Con­gress, cur­rent Gov. Butch Ot­ter reg­u­larly re­sisted new Idaho wilder­ness pro­pos­als. But as gov­er­nor, he’s op­posed trans­fer­ring Idaho’s fed­eral lands to state own­er­ship and has re­cently sup­ported col­lab­o­rat­ing with the For­est Ser­vice and other agen­cies on lands is­sues.

“If you are not go­ing to obey the rule of law, then you can’t ex­pect the rule of law to work for you,” he told the States­man while Bundy still held the Mal­heur refuge in Jan­uary 2016.

Stick­ler, how­ever, said he be­lieves those who don’t ac­cept the Bundys’ views on the law can still find com­mon ground.

“If you don’t agree with their con­sti­tu­tional stand, that’s fine. But you should be up­set about what (law en­force­ment and prose­cu­tors) did to them,” he said, ref­er­enc­ing the mis­con­duct dur­ing the Bunkerville trial.

Some Idaho law­mak­ers were. Last fall, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador warned At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions of a pos­si­ble “mis­car­riage of jus­tice” in a let­ter about the treat­ment of Am­mon Bundy and three other Ida­hoans con­nected to Bunkerville. His let­ter came on the heels of a sim­i­lar one au­thored by state Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-stan­ley, and signed by dozens of mem­bers of the Idaho Leg­is­la­ture.

Those sig­na­tures in­cluded Rep. Christy Perry, R-nampa, who lost a bid this spring to re­place Labrador in Con­gress. “I don’t agree or dis­agree with what they did. But I look at the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple and I see a grow­ing dis­con­nect,” she said in a phone in­ter­view Oct. 29.

She called the stand­offs “this un­will­ing­ness on both sides to come to the ta­ble to ad­dress the is­sues” but said the blame “lies squarely in the gov­ern­ment’s hands by not be­ing in touch with peo­ple, and not be­ing trans­par­ent and ac­count­able.”

In a phone in­ter­view, Moon re­counted the botched pros­e­cu­tion that led to a mis­trial on the Bunkerville charges.

“I think peo­ple who have re­searched and fol­lowed the court pro­ceed­ings are sym­pa­thetic to the Bundys,” she said. “It’s mak­ing crim­i­nals out of peo­ple who aren’t crim­i­nals.”

Back­coun­try Hun­ters & An­glers doesn’t see it that way. The 20,000-mem­ber or­ga­ni­za­tion, which held its an­nual ren­dezvous in Boise in April, strongly re­jects the Bundys’ ar­gu­ments and helped protest a Mon­tana visit by Cliven Bundy in Jan­uary.

“I grew up on a ranch,” Ryan Busse, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s na­tional board chair­man, said in a press re­lease about the protest. “When some­one stole things or grazed cat­tle on a place they did not have per­mis­sion, we called them thieves.”

“Some peo­ple would see (the mis­trial) as a procla­ma­tion that the Bundys are right,” Josh Kuntz, re­gional di­rec­tor for the group’s Idaho chap­ter, told the States­man on Wednes­day. “But there are le­gal rea­sons that it’s de­clared a mis­trial.”

Am­mon Bundy knows the stand­offs likely lost his fam­ily some sup­port­ers, that the method wasn’t a per­fect means of get­ting the mes­sage out. But he said he sees both in­ci­dents as nec­es­sary and the out­comes of both tri­als as vic­to­ries, con­fir­ma­tion of the in­no­cence he and his fel­low protesters claimed all along. Fur­ther, he said, he can’t take his com­plaints about a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment to a court­room and judge he views as equally cor­rupt.

“The Bundys may feel that they did (things) civilly. I think that was an es­ca­lated con­flict. But it’s dif­fi­cult, and that is a per­spec­tive that is cer­tainly sub­jec­tive,” Perry said. “I don’t nec­es­sar­ily agree with the way they went about it, but I don’t fault them for their choice.”

She said their frus­tra­tion is some­thing she hears from her own con­stituents, a feel­ing that the gov­ern­ment is shirk­ing its re­spon­si­bil­ity to work for its peo­ple. They’re the peo­ple who cham­pion the Bundys’ de­ci­sion to “say no,” as Am­mon puts it.

Even other ranch­ers have crit­i­cized the Bundy fam­ily’s meth­ods. In

2016, then-leader of the Idaho Cat­tle As­so­ci­a­tion Wayne Prescott told

KTVB he be­lieved the refuge oc­cu­piers had some good points — but their “takeover of build­ings at the wildlife refuge is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our ranch­ing com­mu­nity.”

“Eighty per­cent of the peo­ple (who sup­port them) share the view that the Bundys are he­roes. The vo­cal 20 per­cent be­lieve they should’ve gone through the process (be­fore the stand­offs),” KIDO’S Miller said.

Kuntz said sup­port­ers them­selves are just a small, vo­cal mi­nor­ity in the West. But he wor­ries about the makeup of the group.

“It’s con­cern­ing to see some Idaho leg­is­la­tors sup­port (the Bundys’ stance) when ev­i­dence shows peo­ple are happy with the cur­rent (land man­age­ment) sys­tem,” Kuntz said.

Still, he thinks the stand­offs have done more good than harm when it comes to pub­lic lands pol­icy.

“Due to the public­ity, it helped the pub­lic un­der­stand what they have. A lot of peo­ple may have been tak­ing ( pub­lic lands) for granted, so this can re­mind them there are peo­ple who would try to strip that away,” Kuntz said.

Am­mon Bundy said Kuntz’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion is just an­other of the mis­un­der­stand­ings he’s tried to com­bat since the Bunkerville in­ci­dent.

“I’ve had to al­most get cal­loused to peo­ple just not un­der­stand­ing, be­cause there hasn’t been a whole lot bet­ter way (to ex­plain it),” Bundy said. “Ei­ther they won’t lis­ten, or you just can’t get them (that much) in­for­ma­tion. I think that if in­tel­li­gent peo­ple would look at the sit­u­a­tion and put aside their bi­ases for just a lit­tle bit, they would see the true dan­ger not only to us and the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity, but also to them.”

That’s why he thinks ed­u­ca­tion is his way to pro­pel the “non-move­ment” for­ward and avoid the what he sees as the true dan­ger to the Amer­i­can peo­ple: fed­eral over­reach. (His brother Ryan, an­other main fig­ure in both stand­offs, is run­ning for gov­er­nor of Ne­vada as his part. Re­cent polls quoted in news me­dia show him far from the lead.)

In ad­di­tion to speak­ing en­gage­ments, Am­mon Bundy has thought about so­cial me­dia as a tool, point­ing to the mil­lions of views on the Bundy

Ranch Face­book page and protesters’ Youtube ac­counts dur­ing the Mal­heur oc­cu­pa­tion. It’s one means of get­ting word out di­rectly to skep­tics, but Molvar isn’t sure that will help the Bundys’ cause.

“I don’t think the Bundys are mis­un­der­stood at all. If any­thing, I think peo­ple un­der­stand the Bundys all too well,” he said.

Even with frus­trated Western­ers on his side and new av­enues through which to share his views, Bundy may find him­self in an­other stand­off — an in­tel­lec­tual one, where he and his fam­ily refuse to budge on their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion and many Amer­i­cans refuse to con­sider it as a valid view­point.

“Just be­cause I be­lieve I have the right to do some­thing doesn’t mean that I do,” Kuntz said.

Ni­cole Blan­chard: 377-6410, @Nm­blan­chard

KELSEY GREY kgrey@ida­hostates­man.com

Am­mon Bundy be­lieves the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has no author­ity to own or man­age land in the states. But “we have to have a gov­ern­ment. I be­lieve that it has to be ac­count­able and it has to be lim­ited and it has to be for the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the in­di­vid­ual.”

KELSEY GREY kgrey@ida­hostates­man.com

Am­mon Bundy’s 12-year-old son, Bowen, helps him scoop ap­ple fill­ing into a home­made pie crust. “I haven’t wanted to say I’m cre­at­ing a move­ment or my fam­ily’s cre­at­ing a move­ment,” Am­mon Bundy said. “It was re­ally just an ef­fort to sur­vive.”

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