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Know the West

Conflict for the sake of conflict


(This is an editor's note accompanying an HCN magazine cover story, The Great Gun-rights Divide.)

When federal land managers confronted by armed protesters abandoned their latest inept attempt to remove Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's illegally grazing cows in April, the rest of the world wondered, not for the first time, "What is up with the American West?"

Of course, guns and anti-federal rebellions are part of our region's history; as historian Bernard DeVoto observed some 70 years ago, the West still regularly demands that the feds "get out and give us the money." Bundy, who's refused to pay grazing fees for 20 years and has actively courted some extreme militia types, is serenely untroubled by his own oxymoronic beliefs – he wrapped himself in an American flag even as he declared that he doesn't recognize the federal government. Until Bundy spouted racist comments, Fox News embraced him as a classic American hero.

But the vividly documented ugliness of the Nevada showdown, epitomized by a disturbing photo of a "militia" man apparently aiming his gun at Bureau of Land Management agents, made it clear that we can't dismiss the episode as just another made-for-media drama. As Dan Baum, the Colorado author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, notes in this edition of High Country News, issues like gun control and the environmental regulation of federal lands "serve as a kind of proxy for a much bigger philosophical divide that has divided our country since the founding."

Baum writes: "Guns stand in for a worldview that, broadly defined, values the individual over the collective, vigorous outdoorsiness over pallid intellectualism, certainty over questioning, patriotism over internationalism, manliness over femininity, action over inaction, the Interior over the Coasts."

This was apparent in Bundy's Nevada standoff and again a few weeks later in eastern Utah, when San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led protesters, including Bundy's son, Ryan, on a rebellious ATV ride through Recapture Canyon, an area the BLM has closed to motorized access to protect fragile archaeological resources. Many dreaded a new – and violent – Sagebrush Rebellion outbreak. But as HCN Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson writes on hcn.org (see the link at right to his on-the-spot story), Lyman urged protesters to stop at the edge of the closed area.

"My fear is that this event is looking like conflict for the sake of conflict," Lyman said minutes before the ride. "I think we do more harm than good (if we) actually cross that line today."

Lyman's message of restraint did not prevent some well-armed Bundy supporters from riding into Recapture Canyon, but no one got hurt. It may be too optimistic to hope that, when the dust settles, everyone involved – including rebels, environmentalists and tribes – will sit down with the BLM and make peace. But, as HCN has reported over the years, this is how conflicts are resolved in most of the West these days, with courageous people willing to lay down their guns and listen to their neighbors.