“The federal government and local citizen militia groups faced off over the use of federally owned lands, creating a precarious situation in which each side had the barrels of their guns fixed on the other.”
This is not the story of some war-stricken country. This is the story of something that happened in 2014, in Nevada, U.S. not even an hour and a half by car from Las Vegas. The origin of this incident can actually be traced back to the 1990s, when the federal government (specifically the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior) limited the use of lands, already in use by ranchers as grazing pastures, for the purpose of environmental conservation. In opposition to this act, the ranchers refused to continue paying the federal government for permission to use the land as they had been doing until that point. Over the next 20 years, ranchers ignored the government orders, continuing to freely use the land for grazing. Then, in 2014, the government finally began to seize the ranchers’ cattles in lieu of the years of missed payments. The incensed ranchers took to the media, accusing the federal government of “overstepping their authority.” In response to this, armed militia groups from Nevada and beyond (some reports suggest more than 200 people in total), raising the Gasden Flag (which I will discuss in more detail later) and shouting with passion, assembled to face off with the Department of the Interior. In the end, the outnumbered and out-gunned Department of the Interior lowered their weapons and, for the time being, returned the cattles that they had seized from the ranchers. In essence, this was the federal government surrendering to private citizens who refused to follow the rule of law.
The 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The ranchers’ claim was based in this amendment. Even if the lands in question were federally owned, the ranchers argued, the power to enforce the period of use for such land would reside not with the federal government, but the state government. In other words, intervention by the federal government would be a violation of states’ rights. Nevertheless, these claims have been rejected by judicial ruling, based on the argument that, due to Article IV of the United States Constitution, Congress reserves the right to deal with land and property within the United States as it sees fit.
Controversy over federally owned land within states did not end in Nevada. In 2016, a sect of the militia organizations associated with the Nevada standoff caused trouble in the state of Oregon where they commandeered a building on a wildlife reservation (federally owned land) for over a month. The disgruntled militia group, who were appealing a jail sentence of 5 years over arson allegations, gathered in a town on the protected land of the wildlife reservation; the armed group occupied a building there for more than a month. In the end, almost every member of the group surrendered, save one who was shot and killed by the FBI.