The Deep Roots of the Oregon Standoff

The Bundy family is in the headlines, but the armed occupation has ties to broader—and older—antigovernment movements.

Ammon Bundy, center, speaks with a reporter at a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Friday near Burns, Oregon.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Jan. 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

Two fam­il­ies are get­ting lots of at­ten­tion in the armed oc­cu­pa­tion of fed­er­al lands in Ore­gon.

One is the Bundy fam­ily—spe­cific­ally, the sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada ranch­er who had a stan­doff with the In­teri­or De­part­ment in 2014 over un­paid graz­ing fees. His sons, Am­mon and Ry­an, are lead­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of the Mal­heur Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge.

The oth­er is the Ham­mond fam­ily, the fath­er-son duo of Ore­gon ranch­ers whose five-year pris­on terms for burn­ing 140 acres of pub­lic lands have be­come a cause célèbre among an­ti­gov­ern­ment act­iv­ists. They don’t, however, sup­port takeover of the Mal­heur refuge.

But the situ­ation in Ore­gon has much deep­er roots than these fam­il­ies. It’s part of a wider suite of ac­tions with ties to the far-right, an­ti­gov­ern­ment “pat­ri­ot move­ment,” a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of groups that is di­vided over Am­mon Bundy’s ag­gress­ive strategy, with some con­demning it. At the same time, it can’t be un­tethered from older con­flicts over the use and con­trol of fed­er­ally owned lands that com­prise vast swaths of West­ern states.

Amer­ic­an Uni­versity pro­fess­or Car­o­lyn Gal­la­her is an ex­pert in mi­li­tia and para­mil­it­ary move­ments in the U.S. and over­seas. She re­cently spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al about what’s un­fold­ing in rur­al Ore­gon, and the nex­us between the pat­ri­ot move­ment that emerged in the 1990s, ten­sions over land use, and how heated an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic fits in­to U.S. elec­tion-year polit­ics.

She and oth­er ana­lysts, such as the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, note that Pres­id­ent Obama’s elec­tion touched off an in­crease in activ­ity in far-right groups, in­clud­ing the pat­ri­ot move­ment. But they also say that’s just one factor.

“We also have to think about the Great Re­ces­sion, which of course co­in­cided with his elec­tion. And in the West in par­tic­u­lar, something that hasn’t been dis­cussed a lot but I think is im­port­ant here is the drought. When the move­ment talks about these new re­stric­tions on [Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment] lands, some of these re­stric­tions have to do with the drought,” Gal­la­her said.

More broadly, she said, do­mest­ic ex­trem­ist act­iv­ism is cyc­lic­al. “The re­sur­gence of the ex­treme Right kind of goes in waves. It is dif­fi­cult to know ex­actly which one of those causes is more im­port­ant, but they are def­in­itely all work­ing in con­cert to­geth­er,” she said.

The pro­sec­u­tion of the Ham­monds, she said, is a lo­gic­al thing for pat­ri­ot act­iv­ists to seize upon, even though the fam­ily it­self doesn’t back the armed takeover. “The mi­li­tia move­ment, or the pat­ri­ot move­ment, they look and they see this and they say, ‘this is a great case to press for­ward our con­cerns about BLM lands,’” she said.

“In the West, pub­lic lands are of­ten viewed as the com­mons, mean­ing that any­one can use it, and a lot of the sort of rhet­or­ic or the ideo­logy be­hind the pat­ri­ot move­ment out West is that the gov­ern­ment nev­er really should have owned those lands in the first placethat once the fron­ti­er was opened up for set­tle­ment, and the gov­ern­ment sort of took con­trol of what was left, once states were carved up, the states should have got­ten that land,” Gal­la­her said.

But Gal­la­her and oth­ers also em­phas­ize that the saga of the Ham­monds re­flects broad­er col­li­sions over how the Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment over­sees fed­er­al lands. The agency has a man­date to bal­ance con­ser­va­tion, re­cre­ation, and in­dus­tri­al uses in­clud­ing ranch­ing and min­ing and drilling.

In­deed, the call by the Ore­gon oc­cu­pi­ers for fed­er­al lands to be trans­ferred to loc­al own­er­ship, and for great­er ac­cess for activ­it­ies such as log­ging and ranch­ing, is con­sist­ent with the goals of con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists and law­makers who aren’t part of armed ex­trem­ist move­ments.

For in­stance, on Cap­it­ol Hill, law­makers in­clud­ing House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rob Bish­op of Utah are part of a broad­er move­ment to trans­fer fed­er­al lands in the West to loc­al own­er­ship.

And as The New York Times re­ports, the goals of the Bundy-led ac­tion re­flect the ten­ets of the con­ser­vat­ive “wise use move­ment” that emerged about 30 years ago.  

That move­ment “an­swers the ques­tion of who should own the West by grant­ing mor­al primacy to nat­ur­al re­source com­pan­ies and to log­ging and ranch­ing fam­il­ies like the Bundys, some of which have worked the land since the pi­on­eer ex­pan­sion,” the Times notes. And even be­fore that, the “Sagebrush re­bel­lion” move­ment that began in the 1970s battled fed­er­al own­er­ship and con­trol of fed­er­al lands.

Today, the stan­doff in Ore­gon comes at a time when some GOP can­did­ates are of­fer­ing strong an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic, but Gal­la­her said that’s it’s part of an evol­u­tion of main­stream polit­ics.

“One thing that I began to no­tice in the ‘90s was that the ex­trem­ist an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic that was be­ing ban­died about in the pat­ri­ot move­ment was start­ing to seep up in­to the main­stream,” she said. “I think we’ve hit a nex­us at some point, or a high point, of this kind of rhet­or­ic. But it’s not like it came out of the blue, that Ted Cruz is the first per­son to sug­gest that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is en­gaged in tyranny.”

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