Editor’s note: University of Oregon geography professor Peter Walker 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, which he describes here.
On January 2, 2016, some 300 local citizens and outside militia members marched in Harney County, Oregon, to protest the resentencing for arson of local father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
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 firsthand. 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.
Among the protesters in Harney County that early January day were a small number of anti-federal government activists who had been involved in the April 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, between rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government over Bundy’s nonpayment 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 (BLM) employees to resist the removal of his cattle from federal land. For almost two years it appeared Bundy had won (he was arrested on February 10 in Portland, Oregon, while on his way to support the Malheur occupation).
Taking inspiration from that perceived success, a small splinter group among the protesters hoped to launch a larger-scale rebellion. The group would later state openly that they intended to make Harney County the first “constitutional” county in America – by which they meant a county where the federal government owns almost no land and has almost no direct authority. 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 then-closed headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The case for rebellion
The Malheur Refuge is an expanse of 187,757 acres designated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect 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, and is a key source of tourist revenue for the local economy. It is a critically important place for millions of migratory birds to rest and feed on their journey along the Pacific Flyway.
With the arrival of armed men from Nevada, Arizona, Montana and Idaho (none of the 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 core leaders of the group were veterans of the 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville, 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 they declared a much broader agenda – one consistent with the goals of national right wing groups that seek the handover of federal land to private ownership. These groups also seek the “nullification” of federal authority broadly and the establishment of so-called “constitutional” sheriffs who claim authority to keep federal authorities out of their counties.
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 U.S. 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, D.C. 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.
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 armed protection by the Bundy militants, they could defeat the United States government and start a national movement that would spread like wildfire. Revealing his frustration at the reluctance of the assembled ranchers to join the revolution, Finicum practically begged, saying, “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?”
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.
Harney County’s ranchers were not the only ones to reject the Bundy group’s radical anti-federal agenda.
It is important to understand that for virtually all Harney County residents, the rally in Burns on January 2 was about the sentencing of the Hammonds – not about opposing federal ownership of land and certainly not about turning over the Malheur Refuge to private ownership.
Dwight and Steven Hammond were not universally well-liked in the community, and there was little dispute that they had committed crimes. But Harney County is a very close-knit community that takes care of its own. For the community, the rally was about supporting neighbors in need and redressing what they considered to be the Hammonds’ inappropriate sentences; it was not about any broader political agenda.
Later, at a community meeting on January 19, when the Bundy group arrived unexpectedly (causing much tension), some community members looked Bundy straight in the eye and accused him of taking advantage of the community’s distress about the Hammonds’ sentences to push a different agenda. Quietly and behind the scenes, even militia leaders advised the Bundys against using the community’s anger over the Hammonds’ sentences to create an armed standoff similar to the one led by Cliven Bundy in Nevada two years earlier.
After the Bundys seized the Malheur Refuge, it quickly became clear why the Bundys might have been wise to heed the militia leaders’ advice against an armed occupation.
The overwhelming majority of Harney County citizens were clearly opposed to the occupation and angry that their peaceful rally for the Hammonds had been hijacked to launch a violent campaign in pursuit of a broader agenda.
Even community members generally sympathetic to the Bundys’ goals were incensed that outsiders from afar were now telling them how to run their county and what to do with local land. No one failed to note the hypocrisy that outsiders claiming to cherish local control were now telling the community what to do. One resident whom I spoke with estimated that 97 percent of the community opposed the Bundys' methods and goals.
The community’s opposition became very clear at community meetings, where 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, pointed fingers at the Bundys and chanted “Go home! Go home! Go home!”
When asked about the opposition by the community, the occupiers claimed that the “majority” of local people supported them but provided no evidence to support the claim. All objective observers agreed: from the beginning, the community strongly rejected the occupation. Over time, the mood escalated from indignation to intense anger that an outside group claiming to speak for the county was ignoring repeated requests to leave. The community posted a large billboard on the main highway that read, “We are Harney County. We have our own voice.”
Start of something?
In the end, the unwillingness of the community to rally to the Bundys’ side was probably the group’s undoing. Had the community come to the aid of the occupiers at the Malheur Refuge in large numbers, as the Bundys seemed to have been counting on, it would have been much more difficult for law enforcement to bring about a mostly peaceful end.
Many believe the conflagration and mass causalities that resulted a generation earlier when law enforcement moved against a religious sect in Waco, Texas, had made federal authorities extremely wary of using potentially lethal force. Had the Bundys succeeded in bringing large numbers of local people into the occupation of the Malheur Refuge, they might well have blocked law enforcement and set off a national wave of similar occupations.
Instead, on February 11, after 41 days of armed occupation, all the occupiers had 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 judge and commissioners – whom the Bundys demanded be removed – are still in charge. By the measure of its own stated goals, 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) 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.
This would-be revolution proved that geography matters: the people of Harney County are not the people of Bunkerville, Nevada – and on the whole they are not interested in overthrowing the federal government. In fact, Harney County is a recognized national leader in collaborative efforts between local land users, conservationists and federal natural resource agencies designed precisely to avoid unnecessary hardships to local communities that can set off conflicts.
But other communities in the American West may be more welcoming to radical action, and those who want to see public land handed over to private interests are certain to seek them out. The war for western lands goes on.