BY now most people, even in this relatively self-distracted part of the world, have heard the news of the standoff taking place in rural Oregon between a self-styled “citizen’s militia” and government authorities.
Over the weekend, the armed group of about two dozen people led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy (more on him and his family in a bit) and calling itself the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, ostensibly to protest the prison sentences imposed on a father-and-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been convicted in Federal court on arson charges three years ago for a fire that burned 139 acres of Federal land.
The group had initially participated in a peaceful street protest in the nearby city of Burns in support of the Hammonds, before taking over the closed-for-the-season refuge headquarters, where the protest became less about the Hammonds in particular and more about what the group (mostly ranchers like Bundy) says is a persistent, heavy-handed effort by the Federal government to force ranchers off their lands. Although the occupation understandably caused a great deal of alarm at first – schools were closed in the area, and Federal law enforcement assets quickly arrived to reinforce the local police – tensions have subsided a bit as the standoff wears on and it becomes clear that the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” are not really much of a threat despite having apparently brought more guns than food with them, and swearing that they will remain at the refuge “for years, if that’s what it takes” until their demands – which are more than a little vague, but at a minimum include a call for an investigation into Federal land management policy and practices – are met.
Although the group should have tapped into some fairly strong public currents – the present atmosphere of growing right-wing populism throughout the country in general, and in the West specifically, the long-simmering animosity between the people of the western states and the Federal government over land use and property rights – the widespread support they were hoping for has not materialized. Very few if any additional sympathizers have answered the call to travel to Oregon to join the rebellion (despite assurances that there is plenty of parking), and Bundy’s appeal to the local residents was pointedly rebuffed; in a town meeting in which Harney County Sheriff David Ward briefed residents on the situation, an impromptu vote of the townspeople was almost unanimous in favor of asking the “militiamen” to please leave peacefully; while many people in Burns and the surrounding area said they sympathized with the grievances of the Bundy group against the government, they would rather the ranchers go home and find some other way to air their complaints. It also did very little to help the protestors’ cause that the Hammond men, the original catalyst for the standoff, quietly reported to prison as ordered by a Federal judge, and made it a point to inform the public that “the occupation is in no way connected with the Hammond family.”
Much of the distinct lack of seriousness with which the Oregon standoff is being regarded can be attributed to the group’s distinctly bumpkin-esque character. Early on in the drama, some observers decried the apparent double standard with which the media was treating the group; had they been Arab or African-Americans, some commentators observed, they would have been branded terrorists, and not mere “militiamen.” It very quickly became apparent, however, that a more appropriate description might be “idiots”:
Apart from the group’s comical nature, its inability to gain public sympathy is at least partly due to the reputation of its erstwhile leader, Ammon Bundy. Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in April 2014 led a similar standoff with Federal authorities that came to be known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” That particular situation was the result of a years-long feud between the elder Bundy and the government, stemming from Bundy’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Although Bundy tried to turn his dispute into a populist revolt against an overbearing government, as details emerged he rather quickly began to look less like an oppressed farmer and more like a rich, white landowner being a greedy asshole; the matter, while never resolved – something political analysts say was an error on the government’s part, because it only encouraged more such tomfoolery like the current Oregon situation – was allowed to quietly fade.
Although the sheriff of Harney County, Oregon and the people he serves are anxious to be rid of their unwelcome visitors, every indication now is that the Federal authorities intend to let the current standoff run out of steam in similar fashion. While that may appropriately avoid making martyrs of a bunch of overgrown adolescents, it does little to address a couple of real issues the Oregon standoff actually has raised, something that must be maddeningly frustrating to others who have a serious stake in them.
Government inflexibility and overreach
The first issue is the rather disturbing sloppiness with which the Federal courts have handled the Hammond case. The father-and-son pair were accused of arson, and finally sentenced for it in October last year. The fire which burned 139 acres of Federal land bordering their own property was the result of an accident, they said; while clearing brush on their land, the fire they had set simply got out of control. A witness testified, however, that they had intentionally set the fire to cover up illegal hunting, something the pair steadfastly denies. Whatever the case may be, they were sentenced in Federal court to less than a year in prison (the elder Hammond was sentenced to three months, his son to one year), with the judge in the case deeming the five-year minimum sentence prescribed for arson on Federal property unnecessarily harsh. He was overruled, however, by an appeals court, who ordered the already-released Hammonds back to prison to serve the balance of the five-year required sentence.
Like the Bundy family, the Hammonds had a long history of conflict with the Federal government over land management, and probably have a case to be made that Federal laws – in this instance, mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, which have come under fire for years in all manner of cases (particularly for drug-related offenses) as being inflexible and counterproductive – are being used to persecute them. Unlike the Bundys, however, the Hammonds have made it a point to pursue legal action, letting the outcomes of procedure reveal their own shortcomings.
The larger issue of Federal land policy, which the Bundy-led buffoonery in Oregon does little to highlight in any productive way, has pitted the West against the Federal government for decades. In the 11 Western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), about 47.2% of the land is under Federal control, administered by a collection of agencies – the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Defense Department, and others – who often work at cross-purposes and with little regard to the sensibilities and needs of parties with an interest in the land, whether ranchers, miners, loggers, sportsmen, environmentalists, Native American communities, or state governments.
Certainly, it is no easy task to fairly balance all those competing interests for the land in a way that is sustainable, but the widespread agreement among people in the West is that layers of bureaucracy managed from faraway Washington is demonstrably about the worst way to go about trying to accomplish that task.
None of which makes the actions of misguided “patriots” like Ammon Bundy and his retinue of rednecks the least bit sensible or acceptable, because the topic is no longer the serious issue of equitable and sustainable land management, but simply the mere fact that a bunch of armed yahoos occupied a bird sanctuary. That they are being treated as a joke is probably the best reaction Bundy and his companions could have hoped for, because it shows that people with serious concerns are restraining themselves from the fury they must feel at being made to look foolish.