In Montana, we leave gates as we found them. Ranchers don’t graze on their neighbor’s grass without asking or paying for it. We pull one another out of the ditch. We follow the rule of law, which may sound like some pointy-headed academic term, but really it’s simply society’s agreement with itself – we play by the same rules. It’s part of who we are as Montanans and Americans.
That’s why it was so disturbing to see a sitting state senator, Jennifer Fielder, welcome Cliven Bundy to our state and speak alongside him in Paradise recently.
Much of America watched four years ago as Bundy and a posse of vigilantes pointed guns at public servants who manage public land. Bundy had grazed his cows on those public lands for years without paying a dime. He still owes all American taxpayers over $1 million.
Later, Bundy’s son did something similar. He and a group of law breakers took over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, racking up millions of dollars in damages. They held the refuge hostage for about six weeks in a cockeyed protest of the management of public lands. They terrorized refuge employees and the local community, along with arrogantly renaming the refuge a “resource center” from which they proselytized their anti-public lands and anti-government ideology.
The Bundys have all kinds of wrong-headed rationalizations for why they were right to break the law, mess up our public lands, and point guns at people. They think they are on a righteous crusade.
In Paradise, Ryan Bundy, Cliven’s son, basically claimed God gave his family the right to do whatever it wants. Cliven thinks that because his cows grazed public lands, he owns those lands. It’s a ridiculous notion, but the Bundys want to use our public resources for their personal gain without playing by the rules.
Enter Sen. Fielder (R-Thompson Falls). She welcomed Cliven to our state. Representatives Denley Loge (R-St. Regis) and Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) attended as well, and listened for four hours as speaker after speaker questioned the fundamental underpinnings of our society —basic laws of right and wrong.
Along with the speakers, the event featured pre-addressed envelopes for attendees to mail birthday wishes to Schaeffer Cox, a jailed militia leader who conspired to murder a judge and law enforcement officials. Also available at the event were copies of a John Birch Society magazine profiling the Bundys. Fielder and her legislative cohorts were in dubious company at best.
The lineup of speakers at the event suggested public lands should not be public—lands that define who we are as Montanans. These lands are our great equalizers, because everyone, from a minimum-wage earner to a billionaire, has equal ownership and rights to enjoy these incredible places.
The real threats to public lands come from Bundy-like zealots with guns and their allies -- elected officials with agendas to sell off our lands. The ideology behind these efforts is far from new and contains a hardcore strain of anti-government hostility and hatred.
The Bundys are not the first to speak in Montana of reclaiming sovereign status and defying federal law. Instead, they are the latest iteration of the dangerous constitutional fallacies popularized by groups like the Montana Freemen during the 1990s. But Montanans see through this, and more than 1,000 signed a petition supporting our public lands the same day that 100 zealots met in Paradise.
Bundy, Fielder, and their ilk have no real answers for Montanans. Instead, they seek to sell off public lands, violate our basic values, and turn community members against one another. We encourage community members to reject this anti-government sentiment and support the public spaces that bring us together.
Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. Travis McAdam is the research director for the Montana Human Rights Network.