This week, eyes have been trained on the bizarre standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, where upwards of 20 armed insurgents have seized a government building in opposition to the federal government’s continued ownership and administration of public lands in the Western states.
It’s tempting to write off Ammon Bundy and his allies as a group of fringe radicals, but that would be a mistake: The standoff at Burns exposes a widely held belief in the West—stoked by elected officials at the state and federal level—that the federal government has and will continue to encroach on private property. “The [Bureau of Land Management] wants that land bad and they’ll probably end up getting it,” said a local man in Oregon this week. “The federal government wants to take over the state of Oregon and turn it into a park.”
In what some are calling the “Second Sagebrush Rebellion”—a successor movement to the first such wave of political action that swept Western states in the late 1970s and early 1980s—multiple state legislatures, backed by local ranchers and residents, have in recent months called for the transfer of federal land to local authorities, and with it, valuable mineral, timber and water resources. They seem to believe, as Utah legislators insist, that Congress promised to bequeath these many millions of acres at the time of statehood—that it is rightfully theirs and theirs alone.
But these neo-Sagebrush rebels couldn’t be more wrong.
Constitutional huffing and puffing aside, residents in states like Oregon and Utah have zero legal rights to the land they are trying to claim. The act declaring Utah’s statehood, for example—just like legislation granting statehood to other territories in the 19th and 20th centuries—stipulates that its Legislature “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands.” In fact, the land that these ranchers call their own belongs to the entire country—to school teachers in New York and shipbuilders in Virginia as much as to ranchers in Oregon.
What’s more, the West has historically been a beneficiary of the U.S. government, not a victim. You won’t hear any of this from Bundy or from elected officials who mimic his argument, if not his lawlessness.
The real story is one of a niche interest group (ranchers and their allies) that feels entitled to a federal handout—potentially one of the largest in American history—at the expense of residents of East Coast, Midwest and Southeast states. Like the first Sagebrush Rebellion of 40 years ago, this revolt represents a classic case of fictional privilege, grounded in a shoddy understanding of United States history.