Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Malheur occupation is over. The war for America's public lands rages on
...At stake was far more than the fate of the Hammonds. In the works was nothing less than an armed insurrection against virtually all federal ownership of land in the United States - and even against the very existence of the federal government as we know it.
Had the almost surreally audacious plan succeeded, communities and economies across the American West, and the entire country, would have been changed profoundly.
As a researcher in the politics of public land, I went to Harney County to see what was going on first hand. Having spent five weeks going back and forth between my home and the community, I'm convinced that the Malheur occupation was part of a much larger, well-funded and politically connected movement to transfer public lands to private owners.
I'm also convinced it is not over, and we must expect to see more violent attempts to seize public land in the future...
Federal ownership of land 'unconstitutional', say rebels
While the press often reported on the groups' stated goals of freeing the Hammonds and handing over land in the Malheur Refuge to private owners, the occupiers' goals were in fact far more ambitious.
At a community meeting that I attended near the town of Crane, Oregon, on January 18, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, LaVoy Finicum and Ryan Payne presented their grand vision in no uncertain terms. In the audience were roughly 30 local ranchers.
The Bundy group gave a lengthy presentation of their interpretation of the US Constitution in which they claimed the federal government has essentially no authority beyond the powers specifically enumerated in the verbatim text of the Constitution, and that the federal government cannot own land outside Washington, DC except with the consent of the states.
Based on this interpretation, the Bundys, Finicum and Payne told local ranchers that they had no obligation to pay fees for grazing on federal land because, in their view, federal ownership of land is unconstitutional. The group implored the Harney County ranchers in the meeting to tear up their grazing leases.
Their goal, ultimately, was to wrest virtually all power from the federal government through armed action in the name of "We The People." Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum said that he and Cliven Bundy were the only ranchers to have faced off against the federal government by refusing to pay grazing fees and that they had succeeded by using their Second Amendment right to bear arms - arms that they had literally pointed directly at federal employees.
Harney County ranchers at the meeting complained that the occupiers were asking too much - for example, if ranchers tear up their grazing leases, then the value of their former grazing rights is subtracted from their net worth and they cannot borrow against it. And none welcomed an armed standoff with federal authorities...
Tearing up grazing leases
Not a single rancher from Harney County or the state of Oregon was persuaded. On Saturday, January 23, the occupiers held a ceremony at the Malheur Refuge that symbolically represented the fruits of their revolutionary labors: in front of TV cameras and newspaper and radio reporters, a single rancher, from 1,300 miles away in New Mexico, stood beside Ryan Bundy and pledged to break his BLM lease.
The New Mexico rancher, Adrian Sewell, had a violent criminal past that included assault with an ax. Another eight ranchers made similar commitments - all in Utah, where the movement to privatize public land is particularly strong.
The Bundy group claimed, without presenting any evidence, that other ranchers would soon make the pledge to tear up their grazing leases, igniting a national movement. Three days later, the Bundys and Payne were arrested and Finicum was killed, according to reports, after resisting arrest by state police....
...The national movement to transfer federal land to private ownership (including groups with direct ties to the Bundy family) remains as active as ever, and appears to have access to enormous resources from wealthy conservative supporters with interests in oil, gas and coal development. Militia groups are active, angry and eager for a win.
Those who value public lands - for economic, environmental, recreational and aesthetic values - owe a debt of gratitude to Harney County. A violent branch of the Sagebrush Rebellion came to town in Harney County, and the community told it to go away.
Peter Walker is Professor of Geography, University of Oregon. He has just returned from Harney County, Oregon, where armed occupiers took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He spent several weeks attending community meetings and watching the events unfold, as he describes here.