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Of God And Guns: How The Sagebrush Rebellion Turned Into A Hotbed Of Armed Modern Radicals
March 24, 2020
Of God And Guns: How The Sagebrush Rebellion Turned Into A Hotbed Of Armed Modern Radicals
In this excerpt from Betsy Gaines Quammen's new book 'American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West," the author explores how Utah became the center of anti-federalism
EDITOR'S NOTE: In today's Trump Administration, a number of political appointees with Wyoming connections hold powerful positions of influence. Among them are a few who identify as "Sagebrush Rebels." One is William Perry Pendley, who presently serves as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, who previously served as as deputy interior secretary for energy and minerals when fellow Wyomingite James Watt served as Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary. Notably, Pendley formerly served as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation and has publicly supported the idea of the federal government giving public lands to states or divesting them to the private sector. Pendley also has voiced support for for controversial cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. He claims the science of climate change is based on "junk science" and he has represented clients who challenge environmental regulation. What follows is an excerpt of writer Betsy Gaines Quammen's new book American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West.
Re-writing the history of who was in the West first? A cowboy image is carved into a rock wall, over the top of ancient indigenous petroglyphs near Bluff, Utah. Photo by Betsy Gaines Quammen
By Betsy Gaines Quammen
In a sluggish economy, never, ever f*ck with another man’s livelihood.
—Guido the Killer Pimp, Risky Business
With the presidency of Ronald Reagan and his appointment of the notoriously anti-environmental James Watt to interior secretary, the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s cooled down.
Reagan was elected in 1980, but even before being sworn in, on January 20, 1981, he sent a telegram to an oversight hearing of the US House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining. It read, “Please convey best wishes to all my fellow sagebrush rebels. . . . I renew my pledge to work toward a ‘sagebrush solution.’ My administration will work to ensure that the states have an equitable share of public lands and their natural resources. To all good luck.”
Rebels were apparently placated by support offered by President Reagan and Interior Secretary Watt, a Wyomingite, as their rage settled down for a time.
According even to certain conservative voices, including some from the American Enterprise Institute, theSagebrush Rebellion was a wild goose chase. From the ranchers’ perspective, if the western states had taken ownership of public lands, the grazing fees, substantially lower on those lands than on private lands, would have likely increased.
If such transfers had occurred, rebels and critics alike would have seen a painful outcome as states scrambled to pad their budgets with increased fees from hunters, anglers, recreationalists, and ranchers in order to manage the massive amounts of land. State control of lands would likely result in their sale.
When Republicans lost control of the presidency in the 1990s, the bugbears of the sagebrush rebels, such as over-regulation and environmental strictures, were wrapped into the less incendiary and more judicious-sounding, but no less rancorous, wise-use movement.
Again, like the sagebrush rebels, this was a coalition of ranching, timber-harvest, and oil and mineral interests, but it was funded mainly by the mining industry. They focused on opening up federal lands for resource extraction free of regulations. The reemergence of that effort was fueled by George Bush Sr.’s aggressive anti-environmental response on the campaign trail to Al Gore’s emphasis on what at the time was known as global warming, now called climate change. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1993 in his bid for a second term, warned voters that environmental efforts came at the expense of jobs.
In the 1990s, conspiracy theories were rife, proliferating nationally through rumors spread at gatherings, activist workshops, and on AM radio. Even the televangelist Pat Robertson wrote, in his book The New World Order of global forces intent on running the world’s economy.
Robertson and other heavyweights alluded to dark global forces, such as Jewish bankers and New-Agers, who in pursuing globalism were taking the world down a destructive and decisively anti-Christian path. Wise-use folks became saturated by these ideas, and their theories began to focus on environmentalists.
At a 1995 rally in Spokane, Washington, wise-user Troy Mader of Wyoming, a representative of both the Common Man Institute and the Abundant Wildlife Foundation, explained to his audience, “Most environmental groups, with no regard for truth, use misinformation to further their agendas and are anti-God, anti-American, and anti-gun.” Tree huggers were lying, he said, godless globalists who were out to snatch away Second Amendment rights.
The most broadly ramifying conspiracy, in the minds of wise-users, was Agenda 21, a plan put forth at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit to address sustainability in the twenty-first century. Wise-users grabbed onto this proposal, conceived in Rio de Janeiro, which had recommended nonbinding ways for local governments to make their own action plans for sustainable development. Conspiracy-mongers twisted that call into the idea that the United Nations wanted to usurp US sovereignty and private property rights.
They also came to believe that it had at its root a design to move rural people into urban areas in order to control them. This United Nations proposal was, among other things, a model for combating poverty, deforestation, and the marginalization of Indigenous people.
But to the wise-use movement, Agenda 21 was a blueprint for local government takeovers and, with that, a plot to take American land and rights. Environmentalists, wise-users decided, were in cahoots, and groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Land Trust came to be considered, over the years, fronts for takeovers.
It wasn’t just conservation laws making public lands less accessible to family ranchers and the extraction industry—it was a global cabal intent on grabbing American lands from rural people in the quest to take over the world. Or something along those lines .
By the mid-1990s the wise-use movement began to intertwine with an emerging militia movement, or patriot movement—a loose consortium of white supremacists, survivalists, libertarian eccentrics, and religious cranks who saw a rot growing within the US government.
....the wise-use movement began to intertwine with an emerging militia movement, or patriot movement—a loose consortium of white supremacists, survivalists, libertarian eccentrics, and religious cranks who saw a rot growing within the US government. Various forms of ideological flotsam drifted along with these campaigns—anti-environmentalism, religious fundamentalism, militarism, and sedition. Together they imagined a battle between good and evil—an event to bring corruption, in all its many imagined manifestations, to an end.
Various forms of ideological flotsam drifted along with these campaigns—anti-environmentalism, religious fundamentalism, militarism, and sedition. Together they imagined a battle between good and evil—an event to bring corruption, in all its many imagined manifestations, to an end.
A contagious distrust and fury over federal powers spread to broader and broader audiences, after two events rocked the United States and galvanized widespread anti-government sentiment.
The first event took place on August 21, 1992, when Randy Weaver of Naples, Idaho, saw his teenage son shot by federal agents during a siege at Ruby Ridge. Six US marshals had been surveilling the family’s home in order to approach the elder Weaver with a bench warrant when the Weavers’ dog, Striker, started barking.
Sammy Weaver, age fourteen, and his friend Kevin Harris came out of the house to check on the disturbance, and a gun battle ensued. The feds later claimed they were attacked and the Weavers claimed the agents shot first. Sammy was killed, shot twice in the back. Deputy Marshal William Degan was shot dead and so was the dog.
The Weaver family had no idea what was happening as night fell and hundreds of FBI and state police amassed in the dark to create a militarized zone all around the compound. A “shoot on sight” rule was implemented and officers were given the go-ahead to target anyone who appeared to be armed.
On August 22, while attempting to take his son Sammy’s body to a shed, Randy was shot and wounded. While standing on the porch holding her ten-month-old infant, Elisheba, Vicki Weaver ordered everyone inside just before she was shot in the face and killed. Her infant daughter survived. Kevin Harris was also wounded, and for days the two men and the Weavers’ three surviving children didn’t leave the house or answer appeals to negotiate with the FBI.
This photograph, taken with a surveillance camera used by the US Marshall Service, is believed to be the last picture of Vicki Weaver before she was killed by an FBI sniper on Aug. 22, 1992 in the Ruby Ridge, Idaho standoff. It was introduced in evidence at a subsequent trial involving surviving husband, Randy Weaver.
Members of the Aryan Nations, a group that Weaver was himself affiliated with, and radical right-wing protesters from all over the West arrived on the scene to demonstrate against the horrific and mishandled government actions.
On August 28, a man named Bo Gritz helped bring the standoff to an end. After visiting the Weaver’s property, he told FBI negotiator Jim Botting, “Boy, you guys really screwed that one up. Vicki’s dead. Randy’s been shot. Harris has been shot. Dog’s dead. Sam’s dead. You damn near killed the whole family.” The FBI apparently had no idea how much damage they had done.
James Gordon “Bo” Gritz, a beefy silver-haired ex-Green Beret and twenty-year Army Special Forces veteran, ran for president with the Populist Party in 1992, the year of Ruby Ridge, under the slogan “God, Guns and Gritz.” He spoke against globalism and the New World Order.
Before his own presidential run, Gritz had been on a ticket as running mate to the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke in 1988, though he later denounced him. Gritz had been baptized into the Mormon Church in 1984, but eventually parted ways with the Latter-day Saints. He taught survival skills in Idaho for those anticipating end-times and became a hero for his role in Ruby Ridge.
How did Randy Weaver and his family end up in Idaho? God told them to go.
Like Randy, Vicki grew up in Iowa. She and her family had attended the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a branch of Mormonism that splintered off from the main church after Brigham Young came to power. After the Weavers married, they settled in Cedar Falls, west of Dubuque, where they both became convinced of the imminence of the world’s end. Vicki had a vision that God wanted her and her family to head west and await the event.
Once in Idaho, they’d live off the grid, homeschool their children, grow vegetables, read the Bible, and picnic at Hayden Lake with members of the Aryan Nations.
At these neo-Nazi get-togethers, just sixteen miles down the road from the family cabin, the Weavers mixed with members of the Christian Identity Church, another apocalyptic religion with anti-government underpinnings, one that emphasized whites as the chosen people.
The roots of this sect can be traced to nineteenth-century British anti-Semitism, and to its spillover into a few American religious fringe groups in the early twentieth century. Weaver had been selling guns for extra money when an undercover FBI agent posing as a member of the Hayden Lake group approached him in 1989 to buy sawed-off shotguns. He agreed to sell.
After the deal went through, the FBI contacted Weaver and threatened him with a weapons charge, while promising the whole affair would be dropped if he consented to act as an informant. He said no. A few months later, Weaver was pulled over, shoved in the snow, frisked, cuffed, and thrown in jail. He posted bail, went home, and didn’t attend his later hearing. There had been a mix-up in regard to the date, but he was anyway reluctant to appear—he’d been told by the magistrate that if he was found guilty he would lose his property. That was false, but nonetheless he took it as truth and it terrified him.
The Ruby Ridge siege became a rallying event for the militia movement, filling its ranks primarily with rural white men outraged by what they deemed a miscarriage of justice. After his surrender, Randy Weaver served eighteen months in jail, and the family was awarded more than $3 million in a civil suit against the feds. Kevin Harris was awarded $380,000. The man who coordinated the FBI actions at Ruby Ridge, E. Michael Kahoe, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for destroying internal analysis that was unfavorable to the FBI response and lying to investigators. A manslaughter charge was dropped against FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, who shot and killed Vicki Weaver.
In her gripping memoir, Educated, Tara Westover points to the time when her Mormon family used the Weavers’ story as a cautionary tale, her father, Val, convincing the family to anticipate the day when they would face their own government siege. In preparation, her dad made his seven children stuff what he called “head for the hills bags” full of “herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint, steel,” with “several boxes of military MREs—Meals Ready to Eat.”
Bunkerville, Nevada, located on the edge of the Mojave Desert, is a tough place to grow cattle and as home to the Bundys it has become a hotbed of armed anti-government rhetoric defying laws and history. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Each family member added a sleeping bag and weapons to their kit. Her brothers packed guns while Tara carried a small knife, weaponry necessary to withstand the attack sure to come. She grew up believing that the siege was imminent, the specter of the Weaver family becoming the very backdrop of her life, as it did for so many would-be insurgents and fundamentalists across the country.
The next episode that added to the uptick in the American patriot movement took place a year later, in Waco, Texas. Branch Davidians were a religious cult led by a self-proclaimed prophet of God, David Koresh. This handsome, magnetic Bible teacher instructed his followers to, among other things, hunker down in their New Mount Carmel Center compound and await the end of the world. Koresh practiced polygamy and stockpiled weapons.
In February 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at the compound, intending to search the property and arrest the self-proclaimed prophet. Shots were fired by both the agents and the cultists, but who fired first is still debated. Ten people in total were killed, members of the Davidians and of the ATF.
After the failed first assault, Texas law enforcement and FBI agents surrounded the Davidian property, spending weeks in unsuccessful negotiations with Koresh, trying to encourage his surrender. On April 19, the FBI rolled tear-gas canisters into the facility. A fire broke out and the entire compound burned to the ground, leaving seventy-five dead, including children. Koresh was found dead after the fire from a gunshot wound to the head.
Militia activity exploded in the United States, and zealots of various stripes went to war with the government. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 186 people. The Montana Freemen declared they were no longer part of the United States and in 1996 sat holed up for eighty-one days in Jordan, Montana, during a standoff with the FBI.
The Bureau had been sent in with eight arrest warrants stemming from financial improprieties such as counterfeiting. Militia contagion also infected rural Mormon communities whose members had a long familiarity with religious oppression and were disposed toward anti-government feelings.
The wise-use and militia movements were creating a campaign of attrition against law and order, breaking codes of civil society and taunting government officials to try and make them stop. Some continued to question whether the federal government, or the public, could legally own land in their states. Dick Carver, an official in Nye County, Nevada, claimed the federal government had “no authority to own, hold, or accept dominion over public lands,” and to prove his point he bulldozed open a road that the Forest Service had closed, as Cliven Bundy cheered with a gathered crowd.
Carver, a buddy of Bundy’s, believed in county supremacy over federal authority, and pledged to “end apartheid in the West.” At a 1995 rally in Alturas, California, Carver told the audience that he had refused to stop his bulldozer despite a Forest Service ranger having commanded him to do so, when “all it would have taken was for him [the ranger] to draw a weapon.” Smugly, Carver added, “Fifty people with sidearms would have drilled him.”
At a 1995 rally in Alturas, California, Carver told the audience that he had refused to stop his bulldozer despite a Forest Service ranger having commanded him to do so, when 'all it would have taken was for him [the ranger] to draw a weapon.' Smugly, Carver added, 'Fifty people with sidearms would have drilled him.'
Wise-use and militia circles had guns, but the environmentalists had their own tools. And in Utah, one tool was the Antiquities Act. In the 1990s, bills proposing large-scale wilderness designations were a near impossibility to get through Congress due to intractable Republican politicians from western states. But the Antiquities Act allowed a president to move unilaterally to protect lands in spite of any congressional opposition.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton did just that when he made the Grand Staircase-Escalante region a national monument, sixty years after Charlie Redd had expressed concerns that Escalante would become a national park. Though some Utahns applauded Clinton’s designation, there was fury among many people who lived in southern Utah. Protesters in Kanab carried black balloons and shook “Shame on You, Clinton” signs.
Kanab realtor Dale Clarkson called Escalante “the finest energy field we have in the United States,” but said that the “monument won’t have a dime’s influence on tourism. . . . It’s not even second-class scenery—it’s third or fourth class. It’s such marginal ground that part of it was used in the motion picture Planet of the Apes.” This was a far cry from the 1930 Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel celebration, when Utah’s governor announced before a jubilant crowd of locals that the lands of Utah were open for the “use of the people of the United States . . .”
At the time Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated, Utah Republican Chris Cannon announced his candidacy for Congress. His opposition to the new monument was the perfect issue for engaging a furious electorate, and Cannon soon dropped a bombshell advertisement comparing the new monument’s declaration to the federal government’s nineteenth-century incursion during the Utah War, when the westbound Baker-Fancher party was caught in the crossfire of the Mormon rebellion.
In Cannon’s 1990s television ad, he told viewers, “I feel like I’m back in the 1850s again, with the federal government encamped all around us. Now Clinton takes our land.” The ad was intended to spark 150-year-old memories of multi-generational Mormon oppression at the hands of the federal government. Cannon expertly fanned the flames, reminding voters that the last time “the federal government encamped all around us,” a lot of blood was spilled.
The message was clear: Dixie knew what to do with outsiders who trespassed on Zion. And with his menacing message, Cannon won the race and served in Congress from 1997 to 2009.
Torrey House is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature. Writes its founders Kirsten Johanna Allen and Mark Bailey (at right): "We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively, contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. We strive to identify exceptional writers, nurture their work, and engage the widest possible audience; to publish diverse voices with transformative stories that illuminate important facets of our ever-changing planet; to develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action."