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U.S. government encourages lawbreakers

During the Bunkerville standoff last year, many Nevada ranchers made it clear that they did not approve of Cliven Bundy's unwillingness to pay his bills. That was prudent, because however much support Bundy commanded in fringe circles, among federal decision-makers there is very little patience with him, and they are the ones who set policy.

Nevertheless, outside the state in the media and among politicians, Bundy remains the face of Nevada ranchers. When Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul visited the state, he had Bundy onstage with him and met with Bundy privately. Bundy later appeared to speak for Paul on land issues.

And given the federal government's unbelievably dilatory behavior toward Bundy — his failure to obey the law dates back two decades without the Interior Department taking effective action — the rancher's example is even starting to be taken seriously among some Nevada ranchers, making them feel safe in refusing to pay their fees.

The New York Times on July 2 ran a piece on other Nevada ranchers following his scofflaw example. And across the West other lawbreakers have followed their leader.

In Lewis and Clark County, Mont., a couple of miners felt safe in illegally opening a road, chopping down trees they didn't own, building a garage on land that wasn't theirs, denying other members of the public entry onto the public's land and calling for supporters to join them at the site, just as Bundy once summoned his followers to his ranch for a standoff: "Range War begins tomorrow at Bundy ranch."

Bundy, of course, stayed nonviolent and unarmed while letting others carry the guns and the risk, but the example he set was nevertheless pronounced, and it is spreading.

"Cliven Bundy has had multiple court orders to remove his cattle from federal public lands and he has not paid his grazing fees and he has not abided by the law. We will continue to pursue that ... The wheels of justice move at their own pace. I am confident this issue is going to be appropriately resolved."

That was U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in June. It's difficult to imagine 58 emptier words that have ever come from the federal government.

"If I end up in a federal prison, I hope it's Martha Stewart's," Lander County rancher and Bundy copycat Eddyann Filippini told The New York Times.

"So far, that does not look likely," the Times observed.

Conservatives who, like responsible ranchers, fear being tarred with the Bundy brush, have become impatient with the U.S. Justice Department's foot-dragging in pursuing the case, though their success in cutting the resources available to work with may have something to do with negligence.

David Jenkins of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship wrote in June that it is difficult to understand the Obama administration's "failure to hold Cliven Bundy accountable for the armed standoff he incited more than a year ago — along with his illegal cattle grazing, violation of court orders and refusal to pay more than $1 million in fines. ... John Adams wrote that we are 'a nation of laws, not people.' By that, he meant that nobody is above the law — not the president, and certainly not Cliven Bundy."

Last week, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid met with Nevada reporters and was asked at one point about the inaction on the Bundy case. Reid told us that officials have effectively "made a federal case" out of it. I'm not sure what that meant in terms of action or inaction.

It was not clear, at least to me, whether he was saying federal officials work faster or slower than local officials.

House Democrats have talked about legislation to deny grazing permits to ranchers with unpaid grazing fees, which might hurt law-abiding ranchers while doing nothing about Bundy, who grazes without valid permits. One more law for him to ignore is not a remedy.

Journalists have taken to doing annual stories about Bundy's scofflaw ways.

London Guardian: "A year after armed standoff, Cliven Bundy still star of his own Tea Party."

Paris (Tennessee) Post Intelligencer: "Think back two years ago to the Arizona (sic) rancher, Cliven Bundy, whose herds of cattle were taken because he didn't pay for his herd's grazing on government land."

It's just seven months until the third anniversary.