BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — The first thing you see on the drive to Cliven Bundy's ranch are the American flags — tied to roadside guardrails, flapping in a hard desert wind.
At a bend in state Route 170 sits the so-called Patriot Checkpoint, evidence of the tense power play raging between the rebellious 67-year-old cattleman and the federal government.
Then there are the guns. Scores of grim citizen militiamen in combat fatigues — semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders, ammunition magazines at their belts — patrol from a base they call Camp Tripwire.
"State sovereignty is what we're fighting for," reads a sign strung to a fence. And another: "The West has now been won!"
Bundy's private war, a decades-long court battle with the Bureau of Land Management over his cattle grazing on public land, recently took a decidedly populist turn: When armed federal agents moved to oversee the roundup of hundreds of Bundy's cattle across half a million acres managed by the BLM, some Americans sat up wide-eyed before their televisions and computer screens.
The government says that Bundy owes $1 million in fees for letting his cattle graze in the Gold Butte area. Still, the get-tough tactic became a clarion call for those who see the federal government as arrogant and bloated. Suddenly, truck drivers, pizza deliverymen and ex-cops from as far away as New Hampshire and Georgia converged upon this unincorporated ranching town.
The self-described "citizen soldiers" arrived venting a smoldering anger and wielding AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. Days later, the government called off the roundup and released 350 of Bundy's cattle back onto public land.
Two weeks later, some Bundy supporters remain bivouacked here, celebrating what they call the Battle of Bunkerville. They're gritty, unshaven men, some with their wives, who refer to themselves as "we the people," voicing gripes about Obamacare and lax federal immigration policy.
Bundy has his critics, but to supporters, his case is a symbol of everything wrong with America. Never mind that other ranchers pay the fees Bundy says he can avoid because his ancestors settled the area before the federal government stepped in.
The face-off is reminiscent of civil disobedience popularized during the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought greater local control in 12 Western states where the federal government administers 60% of the land. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the land.
At Camp Tripwire, the militia members talk of deadly antigovernment clashes at Idaho's Ruby Ridge and at Waco, Texas. "We showed up so there's no slaughter like Ruby Ridge," said a man who called himself Mark, a 60-year-old from New Mexico dressed in fatigues, with a handgun strapped to his leg.
"A blind chimp can see this is a bad situation. But we're not wackos. We're here as defenders, trying to do what's right in our hearts," he said.
Two weeks ago, he arrived at a scene that he said brought tears to his eyes: "Americans, refusing to cow to the federal government, blindly, like cattle. They were taking a stand."
In Washington, the standoff has divided lawmakers along party lines.
Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator and the Senate majority leader, branded Bundy's militia "domestic terrorists," while the state's other senator, Republican Dean Heller, called them "patriots."
Other Republicans say Bundy highlights what they regard as federal overreach, such as presidents designating public land for national monuments without consulting local officials.
"Remember, the federal government works for the people. It doesn't feel like that out West," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "It's not just about Mr. Bundy. A lot of people can relate to what is happening, even though they probably disagree with somebody who wants to run cattle on public land without a permit."
He says many Western ranchers think Washington doesn't understand or care about them: "It isn't long before shots will be fired."
Bob Abbey, a former BLM director, said public angst goes beyond Bundy. "I do think there is a segment of our population in the United States that feels disenfranchised," he said.
But, he added, "Mr. Bundy is not a victim by any means."
Bundy's public image fell this week after his pointed comments about African Americans and social welfare, suggesting that "the Negro" was made dependent by government programs. He told the New York Times that "I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
The denunciations were immediate. Heller "completely disagrees with Bundy's appalling and racist statements and condemns them in the most strenuous way," his office said. Reid calls Bundy a hateful racist.