Oath Keepers show up for a public lands dispute in Oregon

Plus a Cliven Bundy supporter is charged and BLM emails about the Nevada standoff were released.

 

It’s road trip time for Oath Keepers again. Members of the far-right constitutionalist group from around the nation were expected to arrive at the Bureau of Land Management office in Medford, Oregon, on April 23 for a protest.

The Keepers will be there to lend support to a couple of gold miners whom the BLM says are using a claim that they do not have surface rights to. One of the Sugar Pine Mine owners, Rick Barclay, recently requested assistance from local Oath Keepers, in the event that the BLM would try to forcibly remove them and their operation from the land. When YouTube videos and blog posts about the miners circulated last week, Oath Keepers began making their way to Oregon, from Arizona, Idaho and other states.

Barclay reportedly put on the brakes a couple of days later. "We're not under attack, this is not the Bundy Ranch," he told the local Mail Tribune last week. (Barclay was referring to the April 2014 gathering of 300-plus armed militia and other protestors that helped a Nevada rancher fend off the BLM’s attempt to impound his cattle, which had been grazing illegally on federal land.) "Please stop calling the BLM and threatening their personnel," Barclay said. Yet, as of Wednesday, Oath Keepers were still asking for more “boots on the ground,” and Barclay was supporting the escalating presence. Idaho three-percenters (a group that holds anti-federal government views and is named for the three percent of the colonial population that fought in the American Revolution) have also rallied to Medford to support the miners.

The root of the dispute, said BLM spokesperson Jim Whittington, is that surface rights were transferred from a private owner to the agency in 1961. Whittington said that finding miners on unpermitted lands isn’t all that uncommon in his area. But they rarely haul in a militia-type group to back them up when the BLM calls them out on it. Local BLM staff have received threatening phone calls since the miners’ situation went public a few weeks ago, but Whittington couldn’t give details because the threats are under investigation.

BLM personnel have been asked to avoid the mine area for now. The miners can appeal the BLM’s letter of non-compliance, stop operations, or file paperwork to renegotiate their level of mining activity and come into compliance. Whittington said the miners are focusing only on that second option—stop operations—when there are in fact other avenues they can take. Whittington said the miners have until Friday to file an appeal with the Interior Board Land of Appeals, and are likely to do that at Thursday's protest. 

Co-owner of Sugar Pine Mine, Rick Barclay, second from left. Oath Keeper and three-percenters stand behind him. Photo from an Oath Keepers email newsletter April 22.

The BLM still considers the Sugar Pine Mine dispute an administrative matter. And Mary Emerick, a spokesperson for local Oath Keepers, says her crew wants to keep things peaceful. But the protestors’ constitutionalist bravado that has emerged on social media, and the threats to the BLM, echo rhetoric that accompanied the Bundy standoff that nearly turned violent just over a year ago. “There’s a grass roots campaign (in response to Sugar Pine Mine) to have people show up at BLM offices all over the United States,” Emerick said. “That’s something I have no control over.”

On the Bundy front, news recently emerged that the first charges were filed in relation to that standoff. Will Michael, a 24-year-old in Pennsylvania, was indicted on two felony charges for making at least one of some 500 threatening calls to Oregon BLM ranger Mike Roop. Michael’s threats were in response to an online video clip that showed Roop forcibly moving Bundy’s sister, who was deliberately in the path of a moving BLM vehicle. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that Michael said in a voicemail: “You’re a f—-ing piece of sh—. We’re gonna find you. We’re gonna kill you, you f—-ing BLM thug, you f—-ing fa—-t.” The defendant has pled guilty and will be sentenced in July.

The case seems to be the first in response to last year’s events. People who aimed firearms at federal agents have apparently seen no repercussions.

Earlier this month, watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released 44 pages of BLM emails and one press statement relating to last year’s Bundy brouhaha. The group had requested the documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and they were delivered in a heavily redacted form. 

"In the aftermath of this incident, BLM apparently did not analyze either its effects or what to do if it happened again," said PEER Executive Director, Jeff Ruch. He’s doubtful that those 44 pages are in fact the full trove of Bundy-related communications. The BLM released nothing that showed they’d asked the Department of Justice for help in dealing with the scofflaw rancher, following the standoff. If it’s true that the BLM didn’t ask DOJ for help, it raises the question: Why did the BLM not file criminal referrals for a rancher who was blatantly flouting federal law?

For all the unanswered questions that remain, the released documents do show that the BLM coordinated with local law enforcement for heightened security at their offices. And agency employees experienced threats from Bundyites; a protocol was implemented for them to report those threats of bodily injury and death. The documents indicate that offices as far-flung as Oregon and Washington were receiving threatening messages from Bundy supporters. The agency recommended that its employees not travel alone in the field and not wear clothing that showed they worked for the BLM. (See HCN’s investigation of ongoing threats to federal employees from October 2014, "Defuse the West.")

The Oath Keepers in Josephine County, Oregon, say they do not want to create a Bundy-like standoff. But the escalation over the past week is a reminder that public lands disputes that rile anti-federal groups simmer just below the surface in communities across the West. Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon, has said that two family representatives had traveled to southern Oregon to support the miners. 

As for today’s protest in Medford, at least 70 people had confirmed they’d attend on the Facebook event page. But Whittington at the BLM wasn’t too worried: “We’ve dealt with protests in our parking lot before,” particularly with the fierce timber wars in the ‘80s and ‘90s that pitted industry against environmentalists. “We think we have a decent protocol, and we’re just going to dust those plans off and make sure people get to express their first amendment rights.” 

Editor's note: A spokesperson for the Sugar Pine Mine did not respond to request for comment for this article. 

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.