When a Nevada rancher faced off with federal officials last weekend, there were a couple of key Southern Arizona players — along with a close parallel from this area that probably forecasts the conflict’s outcome.
Southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy cites his family’s longstanding use of the land where he grazes cattle — and the state’s alleged authority over the federal land — for his 1993 decision to stop paying grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management. The overdue fees now top $1 million, the agency says.
After the BLM got one court order in 1998 and a second in 2013 demanding that Bundy remove his cattle, it finally moved this month.
A key player behind the second court order and the BLM’s move last month was the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which has an office in Las Vegas.
“We have been pressuring the BLM to enforce the court order going back to 1998 to get Bundy’s trespass cattle off that allotment,” the center’s executive director, Kieran Suckling, told me this week. “In 2012, the BLM initiated an effort to do that, then they halted before it got going.”
That’s when the center filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM if it didn’t take action against Bundy’s cattle. So federal attorneys pursued a second court order telling Bundy to get his cattle off federal land or see the BLM do it. The judge, unsurprisingly, was not swayed by Bundy’s argument that the land does not really belong to the federal government.
When the BLM finally started rounding up the hundreds of cattle April 5, Bundy rallied supporters, portraying his family as a victim of a despotic federal government. One of the people who naturally answered the call was former Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack.
Since the early 1990s, Mack, who grew up in Safford, has sounded a call against federal gun laws, for state’s rights and for county sheriffs playing the role of protectors of constitutional rights. His views, derived from the 1980s Posse Comitatus movement, ebb and flow in popularity, rising recently with the emergence of the tea party movement.
He was one of hundreds of demonstrators, many of them armed, who protested the BLM’s actions on Saturday, forcing the government to release the cattle they’d rounded up out of fear of a violent confrontation.
Mack, who has tried to keep one foot in the mainstream and another foot in the John Birch Society sphere, really stepped in it on Monday. Explaining the demonstrators’ actions, he told Fox News: “We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they’re going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”
The comments did not go over so well nationally after they were used to show the radicalism of the protesters, and when I spoke to Mack on Thursday, he was still trying to explain them.
“There was never any strategy about that,” he said. “They were not being used as shields.”
What he meant to do was recognize the women who had moved to the front on their own, he said. “Having women at the front helped, and the courage of the women was phenomenal.”
Perhaps the most important link to Southern Arizona is a remarkably similar case that played out during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, involving the Klump family of Southeastern Arizona. Brothers Wayne and Luther “Wally” Klump also are descendants of pioneer ranchers and refused to recognize the BLM’s authority over their cattle grazing on federal allotments, although they also contested the state of Arizona’s authority.
My former colleague Ignacio Ibarra reported in a 1992 Star story:
In February 1990, Wayne and Luther Klump filed claims in Cochise and Graham counties, respectively, laying claim to ownership of those lands based on the family’s history in the area and their continuing use of those lands.
The family claims ownership of the property along with “all minerals, coal, oil, gas, water, geothermal, gravel and all known and unknown substances to the center of the Earth. We claim the air, air space, water, gases, all living things, all dead things, and all substances to the heavens and beyond.”
In the early 1990s, now-retired BLM official Larry Humphrey led separate, successful efforts to impound each brother’s cattle. The first time, a Willcox auctioneer refused to sell Klump’s cattle out of sympathy with — or fear of — the family, and BLM officials were forced to take them to Phoenix. The second time, he helped prepare an elaborate plan to shut off all access to the federal land where the cattle were grazing.
“We got law enforcement personnel out, blocked every road going in there. Over two days, we gathered a couple of hundred head of cattle where there was supposed to be none,” Humphrey told me Thursday from Safford. “That was a little tense, because the Klumps came up to the roadblocks and tried to argue.”
Disputes between Wayne and Wally Klump and the federal government went on deep into the last decade. In 2003, Wally Klump refused to remove cattle from BLM land and was thrown in prison for a year for contempt of court. That was the beginning of the end of the dispute, though Wayne Klump feels the same way today that he did all those years — that the federal land should be private.
“To get out of prison, he had to remove the cows,” Wayne Klump told me Wednesday.
Humphrey saw the Klumps at that time and sees Bundy now as freeloaders with a misguided ideology. Klump disagrees, but says you can’t fight the government.
“People have to take a stand,” he said. “But as far as Mr. Bundy having a prayer in hell, he probably don’t.”