Friday, January 29, 2016

Of myths and militias

By Dawn G. Marsh

The arrest of Ammon Bundy and many of his supporters on Tuesday and Wednesday left one man dead and a handful of protesters still occupying a federal wildlife refuge in rural eastern Oregon. Weeks after they first occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the question remains: What do they want?

Ammon and his brother Ryan Bundy had issued an array of claims and accusations that resonate with many Western land users. Who are the enemies they confront? The federal government, the Bureau of Land Management and even Linda Sue Beck, a biologist at the wildlife refuge whose office they are occupying, draw the ire of the Bundy brothers and their followers.

Declarations of federal tyranny, divine inspiration and potential armed revolution provided a barrage of headlines, media musings and fodder for political analysts and late-night talk-show hosts. But why does this rhetoric sound so familiar and why are so many sympathetic to the message, if not the method? Because it’s based on the myth of the American West — a land of good guys and bad.

To many Americans, the West remains a place of nostalgia, fueled by decades of enthralling tales that reverberate with man’s conquest of an untamed land. It is a “West” occupied by cowboys and Indians, ranchers and pioneers, lawmen and gamblers. It’s rife with guns and violence, where the good guy in the white hat takes a stand against a bad guy in a black hat. It is this imaginary West that infuses the rhetoric and misguided agenda of the Oregon protesters. One idea ties it all together: land rights.

The West, real or imagined, is about land and its claimants. It remains a vast and largely unoccupied geographic space that encompasses a multitude of ecosystems and crosses numerous state and tribal boundaries. Federal lands, like those disputed by the Bundy family, are managed for the benefit of the nation. The Bundy brothers lease the land and must, like all renters, abide by the contract terms. The federal government rents grazing land at a price far below market value. But the Bundy family, including father Cliven Bundy, decided to stop paying the rent.

Ironically, Ammon Bundy’s objective is to reclaim control of “our land” for the local population. When he was asked what it would take to end the occupation, Mr. Bundy responded, “When the people of Harney County are secure enough and confident enough that they can continue to manage their own land and their own rights and resources.”

Yet, it is not their land.

Throughout the 19th century, the juggernaut of U.S. expansion into the continental West was rapid and lucrative for many Americans. It was, however, often ruinous for the environment, and it shattered the Native American societies occupying the territory.

For all you myth-sufferers and nostalgiacs out there, you will be seeing more and more of this.  That's why you need to read, or re-read, Steve Wilmeth's The Lock, published here on Jan. 19th. In one column, you will find a lot useful and accurate information on land laws.  It's been one of the more popular items recently published by The Westerner and has been widely distributed on Facebook.  Then go to the website of the American Lands Council for a treasure trove of information on these important issues.

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