Usborne in the USA: From Wild West to tame Upper Eastside – two different Americas

There is distrust, even hatred, out there for all federal government

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We have been having a spot of bother over here of late to do specifically with four-legged creatures on public lands and, more generally, freedom. I’ll start here in New York. My second story is more violent.

The villain in the big city is our newly minted mayor, Bill de Blasio, who during his election campaign sought to prove his liberal stripes by vowing to abolish the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. He said he’d do it the first day he took office; now he promises to have them gone by the end of the year.

He should feel fortunate that the man leading the charge against him is being so genteel. This would be the actor Liam Neeson who this week took his keep-the-nags campaign to a new level penning  an opinion column in the New York  Times.

In it, he said that Mr de Blasio was on  the wrong side of a class divide, imperilling the livelihoods of drivers and stable boys and kowtowing to the city’s posh animal-rights set.

They approach things differently in Nevada. When anyone in authority, especially federal authority, messes with a cherished tradition of animal husbandry there – in this case allowing cattle to roam on federally owned lands – they respond with a bit less respect.

First, they ignore them, then they tell them to take a long walk in the desert, then they threaten to start a small war.

You would know I’m not exaggerating if you’d been anywhere near where Interstate 15 meets the Virgin River, 65 miles north-east of Las Vegas, last Saturday.

Gathered there was one rancher named Cliven Bundy, nearly 500 of his cows which had been driven by a posse of federal rangers inside a steel-fence corral, and about 1,000 angry-looking men, many of them armed, and bent on setting the animals free.

That there is distrust, even hatred, out there of all things federal government we already know – it’s what fed the rise of the Tea Party and the states’ rights movement – whether it’s embodied by Barack Obama,  by Congress or by any other arm of Washington DC.

In this case it is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages  the country’s vast swathes of federally owned land.

In the West especially there has been a long history of clashes between the BLM, whose job is to preserve as best as possible the lands in its care, and local residents, often hunters, who object when access to them is restricted.

But with Mr Bundy they have a special case. His family has been grazing cattle on about 600,000 acres of federal lands in the Virgin Valley since 1877.

Then, 20 years ago, the BLM, tasked to protect an imperilled species of desert turtle, began imposing per-head fees to keep the numbers of cattle down. Mr Bundy refused either to pay or take his animals off the land.

The BLM eventually won successive court cases obliging him to cough up what he owed.  Still he refused, arguing (mistakenly) that the state of Nevada, not the federal government, had sovereignty over the valley’s ranges.

All patience exhausted, the BLM finally this month sent out its own wranglers, who, aided by helicopters, began rounding up Mr Bundy’s trespassing cattle.

And so it was that, last Saturday, they had about 400 of them – out of the 900 he owns – trapped in the corral alongside the interstate.  From there they were to be shipped out for auction. The law is the law; this is not the Wild West any more. Or so you thought.

The scene on Saturday might have been plucked from a cowboy flick, a Clint Eastwood movie soundtrack strumming the mesquite and the cactus.

As Mr Bundy and his family approached the corral to argue one more time for the release of the animals, his 1,000-strong militia circled the area.

Men were crouched behind rocks and even along concrete dividers on the interstate, AR-15s aimed directly at the federal rangers.

“I started to think I might not walk away from this,” Mike Adams, who fought for the US in Iraq, later commented.

Faced with the threat of a conflagration, the BLM caved. The animals were released, the Bundys yelped and the men who had come to fight for them dispersed.

“We have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” said BLM director Neil Kornze.

“We won the battle,” said Ammon Bundy, one of the rancher’s sons.

The turtles lost.

The BLM “is allowing a freeloading rancher and armed thugs to seize  hundreds of thousands of acres of the people’s land as their own,” said Rob Mrowka of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. “It’s backing down in the face of threats and posturing of armed sovereigntists.”

Thus damaged also is the idea that America is a grown-up country where openly scoffing at the law will always bring consequences.

Who knows then if Mr Neeson might  be tempted to tap into his on-screen  talents for mayhem and destruction  when the day comes for the horses of Central Park to be walked one last time out of their stables for pastures new or indeed auction?

Grenades on Sixth Avenue? Fortunately, as we all know, Manhattan and the rest of America (Nevada certainly) are two different places. And Mr Neeson is not rancher Bundy.

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