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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rep. Matt Shea travels to Nevada to support defiant rancher

Rep. Matt Shea is among a group of legislators from Western states calling for federal lands to be transferred to states. (FILE)

Spokane Valley state legislator Matt Shea traveled to Nevada last weekend to support defiant rancher Cliven Bundy’s stand that he doesn’t have to pay grazing fees on federal land.

Shea is among a small coalition of legislators from Western states calling for federal lands to be handed over to states. The Nevada episode led to a standoff between Bundy and a large group of armed protesters against agents with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The agents had arrived to enforce a federal judge’s order to remove Bundy’s cattle from the land, but left and deflated the volatile scene.

Shea spoke the following day from property near the center of the dispute, saying the federal government has declared “war on rural America” with its rules and regulations on land use.

A spokesman for a group challenging Bundy said the rancher is doing something other cattlemen can’t – grazing hundreds of cattle for free on federal land without a permit.

Bundy has refused to obey federal court orders to remove his cattle from federal land managed by the BLM. The agency says he has failed to pay grazing fees for some 20 years, while Bundy says his family has historic grazing rights on the land dating to the 1800s and he’s willing to pay fees to the county but not the federal government.

The agency seized close to 400 head of the cattle last week, prompting states’ rights groups, self-styled constitutionalists and militia members to flock to the ranch to support Bundy. Oath Keepers, a group of current and former military, law enforcement and elected officials, announced Shea was leading a group of state legislators and others to the Bundy ranch “to prevent bloodshed and to stand in defense of hardworking rural Americans who are under assault by a runaway government.”

Shea did not return calls to his Valley and Olympia offices asking for a comment. At one point last week, his legislative aide Jim Robinson said he didn’t know where Shea was or if he was going to Nevada. “I don’t know. He hasn’t told me,” Robinson said.

The BLM backed down on Saturday, saying it wanted to avoid violence, and released Bundy’s cattle. Shea and a fellow representative and legislative ally, David Taylor, R-Moxie, apparently arrived on the scene Sunday and appeared with several other elected officials after a press conference, said Gavin Seim, of Ephrata, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Central Washington’s 4th Congressional District.

“This isn’t going to stop here. It’s already happening in other places in America,” Shea says in a video Seim posted on YouTube. “This is a war on rural America.”

Legislators from Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Arizona were forming a coalition, Shea said, to prevent problems like what Bundy was facing by transferring federal land to the states and allowing states and counties to manage them, “not faraway Washington, D.C.” He also criticized BLM staff for pointing weapons at protesters during the standoff.

“A sniper rifle is not due process. We cannot let that stand as legislators,” Shea said, who called for elected officials and citizens to work to “restore our God-honored constitutional republic.”

Taylor said in the video that he and Shea made the trip because “if we don’t stand up for our neighbors, there won’t be anybody left when they come for us.”

Seim said he had been at the Nevada desert standoff for several days before the video was shot, having made the trip to represent “the Constitution and the people’s liberty.” For part of the time he served as a media contact for some of the protesters.

“I decided to put my money where my mouth is,” he said in a phone interview while returning to Washington from Nevada.

Although Bundy supporters call this a battle over the rancher’s constitutional rights and due process, others say he has been violating the law for more than 20 years. The BLM says he owes more than $1 million in fees; Bundy says it’s more like $300,000.

The federal government owns the land in question, and has since 1848 when it bought the land from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War, Rob Mrowka of the Center for Biological Diversity said. The center, based in Tucson, Ariz., is among the nation’s leading environmental groups.

Bundy did have a permit to graze 150 cattle on the land, but he stopped paying grazing fees to the BLM in 1993. He argued the federal government didn’t own the land. At one point, he tried to pay fees to his local county, but Clark County officials wouldn’t accept them because they had no authority to do so. In 1998, he was found guilty of trespass by a federal court and ordered to remove his cattle, but those orders weren’t enforced and Bundy still refused to pay fees to the BLM.

Meanwhile, Clark County was buying up Bundy’s neighbors’ grazing rights and retiring them to create habitat for an endangered species of tortoise as replacement for habitat land it wanted to develop closer to Las Vegas, Mrowka said.

Eventually, the Center for Biological Diversity complained to the BLM and the agency prepared to round up cattle on the land but canceled the plans because of threats of violence. The center, in turn, threatened in 2012 to sue the BLM, and the agency returned to court in another effort to force Bundy to remove the cattle.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Lloyd George said not only had Bundy failed to comply with the previous order covering the original land, but his cattle had spread “and are trespassing on a broad swath of additional federal land” managed by the BLM and the Park Service.

Lloyd again rejected Bundy’s claims that the federal government doesn’t own the land, as well as several other legal arguments involving federal and states’ rights. The judge ordered the rancher to remove his cattle in 45 days or the BLM could seize them.

That seizure stopped for the time being Saturday. Some protesters remain at the Bundy ranch, and the BLM has not said what its next step will be.