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Know the West

Why the Bundys win; coal could catch a break; Snake River revisited

HCN.org news in brief.


In late August, a Las Vegas jury acquitted Ricky Lovelien of Montana and Steven Stewart of Idaho for their parts in the 2014 armed standoff between the federal government and supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy. The jury found co-defendants Eric Parker and Scott Drexler not guilty of most charges, but deadlocked on some. When it comes to trying the Bundy family and their supporters, federal prosecutors have a terrible record, winning just two convictions after two trials of six defendants in Nevada this year. Last fall, Bundy’s sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five others were acquitted of charges stemming from the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016.

The recent acquittals in the Nevada case raise big questions for prosecutors. Some legal experts say the nation’s current political climate, characterized by distrust of federal authorities, may be one reason juries keep siding with the Bundy crew.

Cory Chappell holds a sign during a rally outside the Nevada Federal Court in August after a judge cut short the testimony of defendant Eric Parker during the Bundy standoff retrial in Las Vegas.
© Joel Angel Juarez via ZUMA Wire

In 2014, a court ordered the federal government to round up Bundy’s cattle, which were illegally grazing on public land near Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy felt the feds were overreaching. In the tense face-off that ensued, hundreds of armed supporters forced Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service employees to end the roundup for fear of violence. The Bunkerville stand-off trials may have set off alarms for the average juror. Jurors are instructed to use their “common sense” when evaluating evidence. Today, an estimated 80 percent of Americans say they distrust the federal government at times. (That’s up from 66 percent in 2000 and 27 percent in 1958.) The recent verdict was not a result of jurors’ sympathy for the Bundys, Lovelien’s attorney, Shawn Perez, concluded. “This is not a rogue jury. It is a failure of truth on the part of the government.”

The most recent trial, a retrial after the first jury deadlocked, was marked by a persistent push-and-pull dynamic between the defense team and U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro. That conflict took its own form outside the courtroom, too: Bundy supporters observing the trial have called Navarro “biased” for months. “The public has become more and more aware of the power of the judiciary. As a result, there’s been kind of a political arms over appointments, which has resulted in more distrust,” said Ian Bartrum, constitutional law expert at the University of Nevada. “Couple that with recent conservative rhetoric and presidential rhetoric, and I guess you get the current climate.”

Similar dynamics may come into play in the trial of Cliven Bundy himself, which is slated to begin Oct. 10. -Tay Wiles

"You can get a lot of votes by being tough on illegal immigration, and Arpaio came to the conclusion that this was good politics."

 —David Berman, a political science professor at Arizona State University, who has studied the influence of Joe Arpaio’s rhetoric on voters. Read more on how “America’s toughest sheriff” galvanized a movement among Arizona Latinos.

In the late 1960s, a ragtag group of outdoors people, including legendary musician Pete Seeger, took a trip on the undammed Snake River. Those photos helped persuade politicians to establish the present-day Snake River Wilderness. The personality of the river, captured in those old photographs, is juxtaposed with recent river trips in 2010 and 2017. The collection colorfully shows the then-and-now of the Snake River’s Hells Canyon section. -Cameron Scott

Pete Seeger serenades the Snake River in Hells Canyon in August 1972.
Boyd Norton

90,000: Number of cars it would take to create as much greenhouse gas as is emitted, in the form of methane, by western Colorado’s West Elk coal mine each year.

8% to 5%: Royalty rate reduction the mine’s owner, Arch Coal, has requested from the Bureau of Land Management, which holds the leases.

$4 million: Loss in revenue, over five years, Colorado would face if the royalty rate is reduced, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who says he’ll agree to the loss, if Arch agrees to capture the methane.

Arch Coal is struggling in a declining coal market and has asked the federal government to reduce coal royalties at the West Elk Mine in Colorado, the state’s largest methane emitter. The state was willing to agree to the discount in exchange for methane capture. But the final decision by the Bureau of Land Management, expected this month, may not require it. -Elizabeth Shogren

Montana has been hit hard by wildfires this year, which have caused evacuations and burned over half a million acres. Republican politicians have laid the blame on “environmental extremists,” saying they are causing mismanagement through restrictive lawsuits that limit logging. Removing dead trees and thinning forests are common tools for helping to prevent wildfires. But scientists have shown climate change is increasing temperatures and triggering longer wildfire seasons. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for a $300 million reduction to the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire-fighting programs. -Chris D’Angela/HuffPost via Climate Desk

You say

Hatchett Jim: “Let it burn, that’s part of the natural cycle of Western forests. The cost of fighting fires should be paid for by the people that build their houses in these obviously vulnerable areas.”

Russell Welch: “Strange how the privately managed stands of timber in the Northwest never seem to suffer insect devastation or catastrophic fires.”

Stacy Philbrick Kandel: “We try to manage our forests with selective logging and reduction of fuels. Nearly every time a harvest plan is submitted, ‘environmental extremists’ sue to stop it claiming logging ‘may’ hinder an animal that ‘may or may not’ live in the area. It’s ridiculous.”