By Peter Walker
Professor, University of Oregon
For Northeast Oregon Business News
On January 2, 2016, some 300 local citizens and outside militia members marched in Harney County, Oregon, to protest the re-sentencing for arson of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. At stake was much 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. Had the audacious plan succeeded, communities and economies across the American West would have been changed profoundly.
Among the protesters in Harney County that day were a small number anti-federal government activists who had been involved in the April 2014 armed standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government over Bundy’s non-payment of fees for grazing on federal land. Bundy and his supporters had in effect declared war on the federal government by pointing guns at Bureau of Land Management employees to resist the removal of his cattle from federal land. For a time it appeared Bundy had won. Taking inspiration from that perceived success, a small splinter group among the protesters hoped to launch a larger-scale revolution. The group would later state openly that they intended to make Harney County the first “constitutional” county in America–code language for, in effect, removing all federal land ownership and political control from the county. Simply put, the goal was to overthrow the federal government of the United States as we know it through force of arms.
What happened next was reported extensively by journalists and social media to a national and international audience riveted by what at times seemed a bizarre spectacle. Roughly a dozen heavily armed men left the protest in the city of Burns (the seat of Harney County) and seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge–an expansive of 187,757 acres designated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a protected home for an astonishing variety of birds, including sandhill cranes, sage grouse, snow geese, tundra swans, ducks, grebes, ibises, egrets, and pelicans–to name a few. The refuge provides opportunities for bird-watching, hunting, and grazing for local ranchers’ cattle under careful management–and is a key source of tourist revenue for the local economy. It is also a critically important place for rest and feeding of millions of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.
With the arrival of armed men from Nevada, Arizona, Montana and Idaho (none of the core leaders were local, or even from Oregon), the Malheur refuge was given a profoundly different role. It became center stage for the latest act in the long-running Sagebrush Rebellion–a sometimes-violent political movement with roots in the 1970s and 1980s that aims to transfer federal land to private ownership. The main leaders of the group were veterans of the 2014 armed standoff in Nevada led by Cliven Bundy, including his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy; Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum; and Montana militant Ryan Payne. While the occupiers at first spoke of a desire to see the sentences of Dwight and Steven Hammond overturned, in time their stated goals shifted toward a much broader agenda–one consistent with the goals of national right-wing groups seeking the handover of federal land to private ownership. These groups also seek the nullification of federal authority broadly, and the establishment of “constitutional” county sheriffs as the foundation of governance.
While media reports often focused on the issue of the Hammonds and the goal of transferring ownership of the Malheur refuge to ranchers, the occupiers’ goals were in fact much more ambitious. At a community meeting near the town of Crane on January 18, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and Ryan Payne presented their grand vision very clearly. In the audience were roughly 30 local ranchers. The Bundy group gave a lengthy presentation of their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in which they claimed the federal government has essentially no authority outside powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and 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 stated that the local ranchers 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 ranchers in the audience to tear up their grazing leases.
Their political goal was far bigger than just grazing fees. Their goal was to wrest power from the federal government through armed action by “We The People.” Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum stated 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 in the audience complained that they were being asked for too much–without valid leases, ranchers could not qualify for credit, and none welcomed an armed standoff with federal authorities. Finicum responded that his group was there to defend the ranchers from federal authorities by force of arms. Finicum insisted that if only half a dozen ranchers in the room stood together with the armed assistance of the Bundy militants, they could defeat the United States government and start a national movement that would spread like wildfire. Finicum practically begged the skeptical ranchers, saying, “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?”
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. The Bundy group claimed, without presenting any evidence, that other ranchers would soon sign the agreement and start a national movement. Three days later the Bundys and Payne were arrested and Finicum was killed after resisting arrest by state police.
Harney County’s ranchers were far from alone in rejecting the Bundy group’s radical anti-federal agenda. From the start, even militia leaders who had protested against the re-sentencing of the Hammonds specifically advised Ammon Bundy against an armed occupation. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of Harney County citizens–some estimated at 97%–rejected the Bundys methods. A small number stated that they sympathized with the Bundys’ ideas, but still rejected the armed occupation as a means to an end. At community meetings, Harney County residents almost unanimously voted to request that the occupiers leave. At one community meeting, when almost the entire leadership of the Bundy group arrived unexpectedly, citizens of Harney County stood on their feet and chanted “Go home! Go home! Go home!” When asked about these events the occupiers claimed that they had “many” local supporters but never provided any evidence to support their claim. All observers agreed: from the beginning the community rejected the occupation. Over time the mood escalated to intense frustration and anger that an outside group came saying they were there to speak for the county, but ignored every request to leave. The community posted a large billboard on the main highway that read, “We are Harney County. We have our own voice.”
In the end, after 41 days of armed occupation, all the occupiers fled or were arrested and one was killed in a confrontation with police. Not a day was shaved off the Hammonds’ sentences, and not an acre of federal land was privatized. The sheriff of Harney County is still the kind recognized by established law, not a so-called “constitutional” sheriff. And the Harney County Commisioners–which the occupiers had ferocious condemned–are still in charge. By almost any measure the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a dismal failure.
There are no guarantees, however, that similar attacks on the federal government will not happen in the future. In fact there is every reason to believe they will. The national movement to transfer federal land to private ownership (including groups with direct ties to the Bundy family) are as active as ever and have access to enormous resources from wealthy conservative supporters with interests in oil, gas, and coal development. Militia groups groups remain 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. Had the community come to the aid of the occupiers at the Malheur refuge, as the Bundys seems to have been counting on, it would have been far more difficult for law enforcement to bring about a mostly-peaceful conclusion. But other communities in the American West may be more welcoming, and those who want to see public land handed over to private owners are certain to seek them out. The war for western lands goes on.