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Why the court ‘victory’ for Malheur militants was anything but

Ammon Bundy speaks to local ranchers in January 2016 urging them – unsuccessfully – to take up armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Peter A. Walker, Author provided

Why the court ‘victory’ for Malheur militants was anything but

Ammon Bundy lost. This might sound strange in light of many recent headlines pronouncing the stunning acquittals of Bundy and his six codefendants in a federal court, as well as Bundy’s own triumphal statements following the verdicts.

Nevertheless, by the measure of Bundy’s own stated goals, his occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, was an abject failure.

Bundy was defeated not by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or by federal prosecutors. Instead, he was defeated by the majority of ordinary citizens in Harney County who stood steadfastly against Bundy’s plan.

I spent several weeks there during the occupation last January and witnessed this rejection firsthand. Bundy lost in large part because the community has been working hard for decades to find collaborative solutions that address grievances with federal land management without resorting to the confrontational methods of the militants.

A crucial meeting

When Ammon Bundy led the seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, he was anything but shy about his demands. He stood almost daily before throngs of reporters and banks of microphones and television cameras declaring that his objectives were to free convicted Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond and to give the land in the refuge “back” to loggers, ranchers and miners.

More quietly but very clearly, Bundy declared that his goal was to make Harney County into an example of a “federal-free” county that would serve as a model for other communities already “on the edge.” Essentially, he declared sovereignty from a federal government that he repeatedly insisted had invalidated itself through “overreach” of its constitutional authority. Bundy’s goal was not to win a battle in a federal court or to rally his followers; his goal was to inspire a grassroots revolution that would create a largely federal-free rural America.

Thus, by Bundy’s own definition of success, he failed. The Hammonds are still in prison, and Bundy’s own actions virtually guarantee President Obama will not grant them clemency. Not a single acre of land in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was transferred to local ownership. The federal government remains in authority over as much rural land as it did the day Bundy staged his armed takeover.

The key to Bundy’s failure was staunch resistance from the very people he presumed would gladly become the foot soldiers in his revolution: Harney County ranchers.

On Jan. 18, 2016, Bundy held a crucial meeting with about 30 Harney County ranchers in the tiny rural hamlet of Crane, Oregon, which I attended. Bundy insisted that the federal government had become a “corrupt” and “tyrannical” force, and that it could be driven out by even a small number of local ranchers if only they “took a stand.” His voice rising, Bundy implored the ranchers: “Now is the time, Harney County is the place, and you are the people.” Bundy assured the ranchers that he and his armed supporters would provide “defense,” and that the government would back down.

Ranchers from Harney County challenged Bundy’s call for rebellion on Jan. 23, 2016, and not one joined him when he asked them to come to a ceremony to tear up their ranching contracts. Peter A. Walker, Author provided

Bundy, along with his brother Ryan and LaVoy Finicum, literally begged Harney County ranchers to come to the Malheur refuge on Jan. 23 for a ceremony pledging to tear up their federal grazing contracts. While some of the ranchers in the room expressed agreement about Bundy’s frustrations with federal land management, none was willing to heed Bundy’s call to tear up their federal grazing contracts.

One Harney County rancher told Bundy there must be “other means” to achieve their goals. Another Harney County rancher directly confronted Bundy, stating “I’m not going to fight an uphill battle that’s not going to be won.” On Jan. 23, not a single Harney County rancher took up Bundy’s call. One rancher from New Mexico came and took the pledge, but several months later renewed his U.S. Forest Service grazing contract.

Poster child for effective work

Why did no Harney County rancher take up Bundy’s call? Tellingly, at the Crane meeting the rancher who declared his refusal to pursue a “battle that’s not going to be won” proposed instead to form local boards to provide input to federal land management agencies – a collaborative approach that has been widely and successfully used in Harney County.

In fact, Harney County is widely known as a poster child of collaborative methods to address precisely the tensions between local communities and federal agencies that Bundy spoke about. The ranchers were not denying problems exist – they were declaring that they had better, peaceful methods to resolve those problems, and they did not need Bundy to tell them what to do.

Harney County in eastern Oregon is a poster child for finding solutions to conservation and economic goals by collaborating with federal agencies. Brent Lawrence/USFWS

The evidence of their effective and practical methods goes far back. In 2000, Harney County ranchers and the federal government established the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection agreement. In 2005, Harney County ranchers established the widely celebrated High Desert Partnership to promote collaborative problem-solving. In 2013 Harney County ranchers along with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge staff created the pioneering Malheur Comprehensive Conservation Plan. In 2015 Harney County ranchers created a plan for managing sage grouse that became a model for many other rural communities.

These projects seek to meet both conservation goals and the economic needs of the community. When Bundy spoke of “overreaching” federal authority and the need for armed rebellion, many Harney County ranchers saw Bundy’s approach as an unnecessary bridge too far. As one Harney County rancher stated, “collaboration is what inoculated us from the Bundy virus.”

Problems with Bundy’s methods

To be clear, there was and is considerable sympathy in Harney County for the concerns expressed by Ammon Bundy and his followers. In several county elections after the end of the Malheur occupation that were widely viewed as referendums on the Bundy ideology, the proportion of the local electorate that supported candidates and positions seen as sympathetic to Bundy’s views ranged from about 20 percent to 30 percent.

Celebrating the acquittal of Ammon Bundy and six other militants who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in late October. Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images

Even among these sympathizers, however, the number of Harney County citizens who supported Bundy’s methods was much smaller based on what I have observed and been told after spending months in the community. At the time of the occupation even some members of the Harney County Committee of Safety (a parallel-governmental organization established by Bundy and still operating) spoke strongly against Bundy’s methods.

The community’s overwhelming rejection of Ammon Bundy’s radical methods in Harney County was the death knell for his revolution – at least for now. Consider if the community had flocked to Bundy’s side as he implored them to do. Federal authorities would have had a law enforcement problem of an unprecedented scale and any violent outcome could well have sparked widespread rebellion across rural America. As U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell later observed, through collaboration disaster was averted.

Bundy lost. For that we have the community and ranchers of Harney County to thank.

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