Homegrown anti-government militias threaten public safety

 

As we saw during the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014 and earlier this year at a wildlife refuge in Oregon, violent extremism is not limited to war-torn countries thousands of miles away from the United States. Armed militias have expanded in size and sophistication and now present a threat to public safety and national security.

These homegrown militias threaten our public lands, the American people who want to enjoy them, and the public servants who manage them. Although much of the news coverage of those incidents painted a sanitized picture of people who just “want their land back,” a June 15 congressional forum on these groups made it clear that the reality is much darker. 

The consequences of their anti-government activism – much of which stems from their hatred of President Barack Obama – go much deeper than a few newspaper headlines. Some of the men and women involved in the Nevada and Oregon standoffs have openly called for the death of federal land management officials, and they continue to harass them – largely without punishment – simply for doing their jobs.

These extremists encourage each other by publicizing pictures of the faces of federal officials, along with their vehicles’ license plates. At our congressional forum, Tim Blount, the executive director of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, described how he needed a police escort just to move safely around his home community in Oregon.

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“Patriots” gathered around a fire to keep warm during the occupation of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

As David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, pointed out in his testimony, creating this climate of fear and ignoring democratically established laws can never be considered patriotic. 

“This is why it is so important that extremism and violence on our public lands be unequivocally rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and that addressing this growing problem be a bipartisan endeavor,” he told us. He is absolutely correct.

The threat these groups pose deserves a full congressional hearing with Republican lawmakers in attendance. As the top Democrats on the Natural Resources and Homeland Security committees, we have asked for such a hearing. The Republican majority has ignored our request and consistently refuses to take this issue seriously.

Instead, as we heard at our forum, some Republican lawmakers employ the same anti-government rhetoric that fuels these radicals. Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has co-sponsored a bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to remove federal law enforcement authority from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, turning those functions over to local police and county sheriffs who lack the relevant training.

Anti-government extremists didn’t always direct their ire at public-lands agencies. That changed, in part, because a group of Western congressmen, state legislators and county sheriffs built their careers by advocating the transfer of millions of acres of federal land to states or counties, even though no state or county had ever owned the land in question or could afford to manage it now.

In the guise of giving land “back,” these lawmakers – and the extremists who now use this campaign as a rallying cry – have undermined the very idea of public lands as a shared and cherished resource. Anyone who has visited a national monument lately need only imagine it replaced by a mine or strip mall or blocked off by “no trespassing” signs to understand what this campaign truly represents.

Our public lands and the people who protect them enjoy enormous public support. Garett Reppenhagen of the Vet Voice Foundation spoke movingly at our forum about how access to our national forests helped him recover psychologically after his multiple tours of duty overseas, and described what it would mean to him and other veterans to lose that access. And for perhaps the first time ever, 32 former federal employees – including former heads of the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management – recently signed a letter urging Congress to act against the threat of the self-described “patriot movement.”

Congress and the American public cannot afford to turn a blind eye to ISIS or other foreign terrorists that mean us harm. But it’s high time we acknowledged that our nation’s own homegrown terrorists also threaten public safety. Tolerating them, or, even worse, encouraging them as part of a campaign to hand our public lands over to the private sector, is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.