Book review: ‘Saints, Sinners and Sovereign Citizens’

The battle for dominion over vast swaths of public land in Nevada and the West was thrust into the headlines and public awareness by the armed standoff at the Bundy family’s Bunkerville ranch a couple of years ago when federal agents rounded up the ranch’s cattle for auction to cover unpaid grazing fees.

Longtime Nevada journalist John L. Smith uses that event to anchor his comprehensive insight into the century-and-a-half long wrangle over public land use in his recent book, “Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War over the West’s Public Lands.” More than 80 percent of Nevada land is controlled by various federal entities, which regulate grazing, mining, logging, oil and gas and other uses.

Smith opens with a detailed and often breath-taking recounting of that tense confrontation in April 2014 between Bureau of Land Management and other federal agents and heavily armed sympathizers of rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons, analyzing the issues and motivations of the cast of rather colorful and often charismatic characters. From there he explores the people and places that set the groundwork for this conflict.

“The region was long-coveted but little understood,” Smith explains in his prologue. “It had been home to the indigenous Goshute, Mohave, Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe people, but that didn’t prevent conquistadors from claiming it in the name of the Spanish Empire until the early 1800s. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it staked the vast aridness as its own.”

The Treaty of Guadalupe at the end of the Mexican-American War ceded the modern West to the United States in 1848 and the discovery of gold brought throngs seeking fortune while the turmoils in the East sent members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a new home. They brought herds of sheep and cattle for food.

It was the difference of opinion over the right to graze those cattle that drew Smith to the Bundy Ranch in April 2014.

“Cliven and wife Carol were friendly. The constitutional lesson was the same one I’d heard from him and others before about state sovereignty, local jurisdiction, and the limited power the Founding Fathers had granted the federal government,” Smith recounts. “When I reminded him that his views had been shellacked in federal court, where judges had consistently ruled against him, he returned to his constitutional argument. By now, I expected, Bundy’s own cows could recite it.”

The book quotes Cliven Bundy extensively, including his somewhat paranoid assessment of what was at stake for him at the time: “When I see the forces they have against me. … You know all those vehicles, all the machinery, all those men, all those guns and all those badges, you know, they’re only after one person. They’re not after you. They’re only after me. They’re after Cliven Bundy. And they want to incarcerate me or put a bullet through me.”

Of course, the much feared bloodbath was averted when the feds stood down and allowed the Bundys to free his corralled cattle.

As Smith relates, many of the Bundy backers were well versed in the lore of federal oppression fomented by events such as the deaths of Randy Weaver’s family members by FBI snipers at Ruby Ridge and the deaths of Branch Davidians during a standoff with feds near Waco, Texas.

But the Nevada sources of federal land conflicts are well documented by Smith, from the Mary and Carrie Dann sisters of the Western Shoshone tribe in Eureka County to Elko County rancher and Sagebrush Rebel Wayne Hage to Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver, a leader of Sagebrush Rebellion II, to Battle Mountain ranchers Dan and Eddyann Filippini.

Smith devotes an entire chapter to “The Senator from Searchlight” Harry Reid and his role in the public land controversies. Reid himself concedes that his vote to update and strengthen the Wilderness Act cost him votes. “The day I voted for that bill was the day I lost the rural vote,” he is quoted as saying.

Smith points out that Reid, whose father was a hard-rock miner, was sympathetic to the industry’s land use for much of his term in Congress, but by 2005 conservationists thought Reid was becoming “a reliable environmental vote at a time when he was approaching the pinnacle of power in the Senate,” Smith wrote. “While others grew gray in Washington, Reid became greener with age, according to the National Environmental Scorecard kept by the League of Conservation Voters.”

Smith also tells how Bundy sons Ryan and Ammon led the takeover of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon to protest the imprisonment of father and son ranchers whose controlled burn spread onto federal public land.

After opening with the Bundy travails, Smith concludes with Cliven and sons and others — after about two years in jail awaiting trial — being cleared of federal charges when the judge ruled the prosecution violated due process by failing to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.

This thoroughly researched book provides thoughtful insight into a controversial issue that doubtless will continue for years to come.

The book is available at several online bookstores, including University of Nevada Press.
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