In the fall of 1994, a young Mormon man named Ryan Bundy was driving through the sprawling desert terrain of Utah when he arrived at the entrance of Zion National Park. The fee was $5, but Bundy refused to pay. Instead, he drove through the gate and into the park. What ensued was one of the most scenic police chases in American history.
Thus begins "Up in Arms," a new book by author John Temple, a journalism professor at West Virginia University. The story follows the Bundy family of ranchers and their steadfast belief that the Constitution doesn't allow the federal government to own land. (At least twice, the Supreme Court has ruled that belief is incorrect.) The Bureau of Land Management is the largest single landowner in the United States. Since 1994 — around the same time Ryan Bundy was gate-crashing Zion National Park — the family had refused to pay for their cattle to graze on federal land. The government wasn't so concerned with the money (it amounted to just a couple thousand dollars a year), but was receiving pressure from environmentalists who were upset that unbridled cattle ranching was degrading the American West.
Things came to a head in 2014, the first of two landmark incidents that anchor the new book. That's when the feds started to round up the Bundys' cattle. The family's protest drew the attention of the national media along with hundreds of supporters from across the country. The second incident occurred in 2016, when one of the Bundy children led a 41-day armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. There was a trial, and some of the Bundys spent time in prison. On a broader level, the book chronicles how the Bundys inspired the rise of the "patriot militia movement" in the U.S.
Hundreds of people volunteered to clean up the Oregon wildlife refuge after it was trashed during the standoff. (Photo: USFWS/Wikimedia Commons)
"This is a topic that sheds a lot of light on the division in our country today – particularly between people who live in rural areas and people who live in urban areas," Temple explains. "I tried to show the world as they see it, rather than trying to interpret them for other people."
Even though there was plenty of news coverage of both the 2014 protest at the Bundy ranch and the 2016 occupation of the refuge, Temple felt something was still missing. "There was a ton of ink spilled on this story, but nobody had pulled the entire story all together," he says.
A story worth telling
So Temple set out to write that story and, over the course of two years, took more than half a dozen reporting trips out West. He would often book one-way tickets so he could stay as long as needed — much to the chagrin of his wife, who stayed at home while her husband entered a murky underground world. The only way for her to keep track of him was via his "Find My iPhone" tool.
Getting access to the Bundys and their supporters also proved difficult. The FBI had previously sent undercover agents, disguised as a fictitious documentary crew, to infiltrate the militia group. But the Bundys found out, making it harder for people like Temple to gain their trust. The family performed a background check on him before agreeing to be interviewed.
Relying on three decades of reporting experience, Temple eventually gained entrée into their world — not only to hear their story, but to spend quality time with them. They even went camping together. "People, in the end, want to tell you their story," he says. "It's just a human impulse. And if you show true curiosity and respect, generally people will eventually succumb."
While most of the Bundys were gregarious, one proved more difficult than the rest. "I've interviewed people for 30 years, and I've never had an interview like that," the 49-year-old Temple says of his chats with patriarch Cliven Bundy. "I'm kind of at a loss for words. He was so argumentative and so difficult to deal with and, yet alternately, really warm and gracious. It was bizarre, and I spent a lot of time with him."
Temple left with a feeling of empathy. "They're sort of like the rest of us — concerned about their kids, having enough money to get through the day, their job. But, of course, they're very different in their political beliefs," he explains. "Generally, I had a lot of fun. It wasn't something where I thought, 'Oh, this person is so different than me.' I found them fairly relatable."
So what's next for the author? He might be taking a break, at least temporarily, from dark stories of crime and punishment. He says he's working on writing a musical with his wife and two sons. "I don't know the first thing about it," he admits, "but we're trying it anyway."