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Why the Malheur verdict sets a dangerous example

Lawyers “aimed too high” for a conspiracy charge—and lost it all.

 

Imagine running a business — say a bank or gas station — and every now and then a band of disgruntled customers barges in with guns, takes over your office and spouts nonsense about how you have no right to exist in the first place. How could you continue to conduct your business? How could you recruit new employees? How could you ensure the safety of your customers?  

That is exactly the kinds of questions that leaders of our land management agencies — the folks who take care of our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges — now must face.

Because that is exactly what six men and one woman got away with at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. Under the guidance of the Bundy family of Nevada, they took over the refuge headquarters last January, claiming that it was illegitimate, and causing havoc for employees and the local residents for 41 days. One militant was killed in a confrontation with police. After a tense, negotiated end to the standoff, seven militants were charged with federal conspiracy and weapons charges. 

damage-jpg
Discarded camping equipment, trash and a car were among the litter and damage left at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters after the occupiers left.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Now, 10 months later, an Oregon jury has acquitted them. By choosing the more difficult path of proving conspiracy rather than criminal trespass or some lesser charge, the government lawyers aimed too high and lost it all. The verdicts stunned even the defense attorneys.* 

Without second-guessing the jury, it’s clear that the repercussions of this case will play out for years to come. But I fear that the greatest and most lasting damage caused by the thugs who took over Malheur will prove to be the way they vandalized something essential to every functioning society: Trust. If America doesn’t get its act together, this verdict may prove to be the beginning of the end of one of our greatest experiments in democracy: our public lands.

Make no mistake. There are plenty of people who would like to shoot Smokey Bear, stuff him and relegate him to some mothballed museum. The Bundy brothers who spearheaded the Oregon standoff insist that the federal government is not allowed to control any land beyond Washington, D.C., and military bases. They simply hate the idea of Yellowstone National Park and consider any other national nature reserve unconstitutional.

The Bundys’ Oregon acquittal doesn’t make their absurd reading of the Constitution any more viable. But it does embolden those who share their misguided fervor in the political sphere. Don’t take my word for it; consider the words of elation uttered by those who supported the Bundys. Montana state Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Darby, responded to the news with a Facebook post that read: “BEST NEWS IN A LONG TIME!!! Doin’ a happy dance! Didn’t expect the verdict today!!! Hurray!”

She elaborated to a newspaper reporter: “I think it will be very empowering. It indicates that American citizens are waking up and we don’t want to be kept under the thumb of the federal government.”

The mood at the Bundy family ranch in Nevada was also jubilant: “We are partying it up,” Arden Bundy told another reporter. “This is a big step, not just up there, but for the people down here in Nevada. Knowing that they let them go scot-free, it’s going to ... be a big influence on the people down here.”

The bullies who want to rule the playground just got a pat on the head by the principal and were sent back outside to play the same old game. Managing public lands is a messy, difficult and often thankless job. But in no way do these public servants deserve the kind of verbal abuse and physical intimidation reflected at Malheur. I am thankful for these hard-working people, and I marvel at how they remain true to their mission despite taking constant verbal jabs from all sides.

They deserve better. This issue reflects some larger illness in the American psyche. We have replaced civil discourse with kneejerk tribalism.

It’s much harder to restore trust than to lose it. But all of us who appreciate public lands — whether we want to log a particular place or preserve it, whether we want to hunt or watch birds, whether we enjoy riding motorcycles or horses or just walking around — need to be together on one thing. We can disagree on how we manage our lands, but we need to do so with respect. We all deserve to be heard, but we also need to listen. What happened at the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve wasn’t a revolution, it was mob rule, and it’s unfortunate for all of us that a jury failed to understand that. 

*This story was updated to correct an error about the possibility of appeal. It’s the prosecutors who might have wanted to appeal, not the defense. In federal cases, such as this, government prosecution cannot appeal. 

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Montana.

       

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.