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Sugar Pine Mine, the other standoff

How a small-time mining dispute in Oregon readied a network of militias for the Malheur occupation.

Danny Vanderschelden, caretaker for the Sugar Pine Mine in southern Oregon’s Josephine County, was inside his camper last January when he heard vehicles rumbling down the dirt road to the property. Two men on four-wheelers were headed toward one of the claims he was guarding, paying no heed to the locked gates and “no trespassing” signs.

 

Vanderschelden, a boyish 23-year-old with close-cropped hair and a shadow of a beard, became acutely aware of how alone he was, several miles into the deeply wooded hills. He had had equipment stolen before, and he’d heard tales of “environmental terrorists” wreaking havoc in timber country, so he didn’t want to take any chances. He drove his vehicle just up the hill to block the exit.

When the visitors returned, they stopped their ATVs on the dirt slope and faced the watchman in the crisp, cool air. “Who are you, and what are you doing on my property?” Vanderschelden asked sternly, holding an unloaded pistol in his hand.

The men, who were not wearing uniforms, explained that they were with the Bureau of Land Management and showed the caretaker their IDs. They were part of the agency’s archaeology and abandoned mines team, documenting historic mines. Vanderschelden relaxed. 

“Sorry for the pistol,” he said, putting the firearm in his pocket.

“What is this, the 1800s, when you approach people with guns in your hand?” Vanderschelden remembers one of the men asking. In some ways, in fact, this remote, hardscrabble region hasn’t changed all that much since the late 19th century: Most of the area’s mining operations remain small-scale, entrepreneurial affairs under the auspices of local mining districts, just as most were when gold was discovered in Oregon in the 1850s. 

On the unpatented Sugar Pine claims, the archaeologists discovered a large manmade clearing, a residence, poured concrete, a recently buried water pipe system and several trailers — none of which had been approved by the BLM.

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Two months later, in early April, a BLM law enforcement officer and a sheriff’s deputy had visited the Sugar Pine property to hand-deliver a letter to the mine’s owners, Rick Barclay and George Backes. The agency offered three options: Cease mining; file a plan of operations to account for the level of surface activity; file an appeal — or else. The “or else” in this case, local BLM spokesman Jim Whittington admits, would have probably just amounted to more letters, possibly for years to come.

The miners, however, saw the letter as a direct threat — an infringement on their constitutional right to due process — and a call to arms. 

Days later, Backes and Barclay stood up in a meeting of about 40 people at the Josephine County Fairgrounds and asked for help. The audience was made up of members of the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers, a militant national “Patriot” group whose members have shown up on behalf of folks ranging from Clark County, Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy, to a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue gay marriage licenses. Members of the local chapter had been at the Bundy standoff 12 months earlier, and the energy from the event — a victory of sorts for the Oath Keepers — still percolated through the ranks.

After the miners spoke, Rice called for an informal vote: Should the local Oath Keepers help Backes and Barclay defend their property rights against the feds? The room overwhelmingly voted yes. With that, Operation Gold Rush was ignited, becoming what was the latest flare-up in a new generation of the decades-old Sagebrush Rebellion. It was sparked in an economically depressed, independent-spirited rural county that was ripe for an insurgency.

On May 30, 2012, dozens of prisoners walked freely out of the Josephine County jail in Grants Pass, the county seat, not because of a mass pardon or jailbreak, but simply because of a budget crunch. The county’s expenditures for public safety, which includes law enforcement, had been slashed by more than half. Not only could the sheriff’s department not afford to house so many prisoners, it couldn’t even chase after new criminals. Where more than 30 deputies once patrolled the sprawling county, population 83,600, there were only six. (Today, there are three or four on any given day.) Crime — or at least the fear of it — became so bad that Hollywood television producers wanted to film a reality show here.

Sheriff’s deputies respond to a call in Josephine County, Oregon, where budget cuts have reduced the patrol staff from more than 30 to three or four at a time.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Then-Sheriff Gil Gilbertson blamed the financial woes on the decline of the timber industry. Some blamed that decline on the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which preserved much of the federal old growth in Oregon, Washington and Northern California to protect the northern spotted owl. Josephine County once had 22 sawmills; now it has only two. At one time, southwest Oregon was politically moderate; later, it swung sharply to the right, part of a larger shift that began in the ’80s and was exacerbated by resentment of the forest plan.  Young men could once count on a logging job as soon as they graduated from high school; now jobs are few, and as of October, the unemployment rate was over 7 percent.

But roots of the local budget woes were actually more complex. Rural Oregon, which had found some relief in the increased timber demand during the early 2000s housing boom, was hit harder by the ensuing housing bust and recession that began in Dec. 2007 than almost anywhere else in the nation. Problems were compounded by Congress’ failure to reliably fund the Secure Rural Schools Act, federal monies paid to timber counties from 2000 on to replace lost timber revenue. “It’s like a never-ending cycle of doom,” says County Commissioner Simon Hare. “It’s so stressful. We have to lay off people. Then, if we’re lucky, we take back the pink slips” when the federal payments finally come through.

Then there’s Josephine County’s tax problem. When timber revenues were at their peak, there was no need for property taxes. The residents generally want to keep it that way, despite the budget crunch. Since 1998, the county government has tried 11 times to increase property taxes — the lowest in Oregon — to improve public safety and bolster flagging coffers. Nine of those attempts have been shot down, largely by libertarian-leaning rural voters.

Though voters in 2012 again voted down a property tax increase that could have ameliorated some of the pain, many residents felt victimized by forces beyond their control and decisions made by politicians on the other side of the nation. Between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of local voters registering as unaffiliated more than doubled, a sign of discontent with both major political parties. Out of the re-opened wounds of the timber wars of the 1990s emerged right-wing groups to resist the feds, including a strong contingent of Tea Partiers and self-proclaimed Patriots. A conifer-tinged Sagebrush Rebellion was forming, and near the center of it was Sheriff Gilbertson, who threatened to breach gates put up by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

Josephine County was not alone. Following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the number of Patriot groups — which can range from curious libertarians looking for a cause to sovereign citizens evading taxes and “survivalists” preparing for the apocalypse — exploded nationwide and increased five-fold in Oregon. One of those groups was the Josephine County Oath Keepers.

 

Joseph Rice started the Josephine County Oath Keepers, whose members pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Brooke Warren/High Country News

More than half of Josephine County’s residents live outside Grants Pass in villages like Cave Junction or Williams, or tucked away in the woods, in an undulating landscape of pine and madrone forests parched by four years of drought. When I visited last fall, I met the head of the local Oath Keepers, Joseph Rice. He told me his story at Rogue Coffee Roasters, a bustling hangout in Grants Pass.

Rice, an easy-going 52-year-old former National Guardsman and Department of Defense contractor in the Middle East, was in Grants Pass in 2012, recovering from an ankle that was broken in Afghanistan. An amateur constitutional scholar, he was frustrated by what he saw as the attack on civil liberties concealed in the Patriot Act and other federal measures put in place in response to the attacks of 9/11. One day, while surfing the Web, he came across something that changed his life: The Oath Keepers’ site.

The Oath Keepers organization was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a lawyer and Yale graduate who had worked as a legislative aid to former Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. The group describes itself as an association for former and current military and law enforcement eager to uphold their oaths to protect the U.S. Constitution. (“Patriotic citizens” who have not been in uniform can obtain associate memberships.) They promise to defend the general citizenry from martial law, gun confiscation, or being tossed into concentration camps — should the federal government ever attempt such actions. Members are largely white and male, but each brings his own shade of right-wing beliefs, which allows for wider ranks. Rice says he is not “anti-fed,” for example; his wife works for the Forest Service.

Rice liked what he saw on the website and paid $40 for a membership. A few months later, he received an email from the southern Oregon Oath Keepers coordinator, who suggested he start a county chapter. Rice organized a small meeting in 2012 at Papa’s Cafe & BBQ in Grants Pass. Three others attended, including then-Sheriff Gilbertson. They all shared the sense that they and their fellow citizens were being mistreated by the government — local, state and especially federal. At the next meeting several weeks later, 30 people showed up, filling the restaurant. “That signaled to me the frustration within Josephine County for the way things were going in the county government,” Rice says.

The group was more than just a place to vent frustration; it also found purpose  in filling the vacuum left by the law enforcement budget cuts. Leaders of the county chapter have trained residents to operate ham radios and otherwise prepare for a major crisis, such as the overdue earthquake that scientists expect to rip through the Pacific Northwest in the not-too distant future. Members have yet to explicitly take on the role of vigilantes, but they believe their background and firearms experience brings a sense of security to a county where law enforcement has been whittled away to almost nothing.

Josephine County Oath Keepers also volunteered for community service, painting houses, building a handicap playground and constructing wheelchair ramps for elderly or infirm residents. These activities made the Oath Keepers a positive force in the community and, simultaneously, textbook insurgents: Whether they deliberately set out to do so or not, the local chapter was winning the hearts and minds of many locals, while also undermining government authorities. Oath Keeper members were key participants in an effort to recall a county commissioner (the first Democrat elected in over 20 years); later, they appeared at anti-gun control rallies and urged their sheriff to disregard state gun laws. Many believe the federal government should not manage public lands.

Josephine County Oath Keepers Joseph Rice and Rob Lee install a wheelchair ramp for a paralyzed man, one of eight such projects the group completed last year.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

When the local Oath Keepers first tackled political issues, they started small, targeting poorly written county ordinances that gave government employees too much leeway in deciding punishment for public nuisance infractions, such as storing sewage or hazardous waste on their property. The group saw such ordinances as a direct affront to constitutional rights and an issue to rally around. “That’s, I think, why they joined Oath Keepers,” Rice says of the first wave of local members. “It was: ‘How can we have commissioners so out of touch?’ ”

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Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel has acted as a mediator in recent disputes, unlike his predecessor, Gil Gilbertson, who sided with miners in disputes with the federal government.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Last spring, the county again floated a property tax increase. Rice opposed it, arguing that serious crime was not a problem and the tax wasn’t needed. Sheriff Dave Daniel differs, citing more recent, yet very localized, statistics showing that crime rates have quadrupled in the past few years. Still, voters once again shot down the levy, and the public safety and law enforcement budget remains about a third of what it was in 2009.

Josephine County Oath Keepers gained a steady following and an email list that now numbers 300. The group has started a youth program that features firearm training, and it has its own float in the local Boatnik Parade, which County Commissioner Keith Heck has ridden on for the past two years. A Grants Pass city councilman, Roy Lindsay, is the treasurer of the Oath Keepers chapter. The chapter had no Facebook page for its first couple of years; instead, organizing efforts spread by word of mouth, email and other members’ social media.

By 2013, the national organization had made a name for itself, with a reported 30,000 paid-up members nationwide. Rhodes had dispatched speakers to administer the oath to “defend” the Constitution at more than 30 Tea Party rallies across the country. A handful of politicians showed their support by appearing at gun-rights rallies or events the group co-sponsored. Oath Keepers developed close ties with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (see story). Former Sheriff Gilbertson is an Oath Keeper and a member of CSPOA, as well as a member of the Pacific Patriots Network, a newer coalition of militia groups that would become prominent at the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Occupation in Oregon.

These events — the levies, the community service, the nuisance ordinances, the preparedness teams, and the law enforcement vacuum — all that helped JoCo Oath Keepers establish roots. “This was a perfect storm over the last eight to 10 years,” Rice says of his chapter coalescing. Then, in early 2015, rumblings began building for a new battle that would dwarf the others and catapult the local chapter into the national limelight: the Sugar Pine Mine.

 

Armed militiamen stand guard at the Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon, last April as part of what Josephine County Oath Keepers called Operation Gold Rush. The Oath Keepers said their goal was to defend the constitutional rights of miners George Backes and Rick Barclay who had been ordered to file new paperwork or stop mining their claim on BLM land.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Last April 11 — around the first anniversary of the Bundy Ranch standoff — Rice put out a national call to action for Operation Gold Rush, asking members and other Patriots to help the Sugar Pine miners fight the BLM. The miners and Rice said they feared the feds would burn their property and steal their equipment. Three Percent of Idaho — a right-wing militia group founded in 2008 with chapters across the country — put out their own press releases about the security operation, and militia-types from Arizona posted a YouTube video of themselves driving to Oregon. Local blogger Dale Matthews released a video, repeatedly calling the escalating situation “Bundy-like” and saying “there are people spoiling for a fight.” 

It was impossible to tell how many people were actually coming. The JoCo Oath Keepers’ former public information officer, Mary Emerick, told me at least 700 volunteers passed through over the course of several weeks. An Oath Keepers associate involved in the operation just shook his head and said quietly to me, “You don’t need to know that.”Help fund stories like this

A local firearms training center spoke with Rice and agreed to provide hidden muscle for Operation Gold Rush, and the group was ready to mobilize its network of combat-savvy individuals to back up the miners, if need be.  

“It was a situation in my county that could have been”  — Sheriff Daniel paused to find the right word — “unpeaceful.” Daniel is a tall, sturdy 46-year-old from Portland with degrees in communications and management and many years’ experience in law enforcement. Though he is politically conservative, he did not take sides in the dispute (in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Gilbertson, who usually sided with miners and has an antagonistic relationship with the federal land agencies). Daniel helped mediate much of the dispute, and was in regular communication with the Oath Keepers, BLM and county commissioners.

An armed member of the Oath Keepers stands guard at the Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon, in an operation the Oath Keepers said was aimed at defending the constitutional rights of two miners last April.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The sheriff wasn’t worried about a clash between federal authorities and the miners and their allies but, as he told me in an interview last October, “I was (concerned) in that there were militia, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers from around the country that had come in and were potentially unpredictable. Mr. Rice will tell you that everyone was vetted properly. I have a difficult time believing that 100 percent of the people were cleared or were 100 percent controllable.” A year earlier, a Las Vegas couple shot and killed two police officers and a citizen after spending time supporting Cliven Bundy at the encampment in Nevada. The shooters draped one of the slain officers in a Gadsden flag with the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol and left a swastika pin on him.

For its part, the BLM wasn’t entirely unprepared for trouble; some of the staffers remembered the timber wars of the 1990s. Sugar Pine, though, was different. “(With the timber wars), there was always an area of understanding; you could at least agree on little things,” says the BLM’s Jim Whittington. “With these guys, we just can’t connect. Mining is confusing to begin with, so when you add emotion. … There is no middle ground with this stuff.”

During Operation Gold Rush, an email from a district manager noted that the amount of staff time going toward the Sugar Pine Mine events was delaying other important work. The agency released generic statements about the situation, trying to stay above the fray. Employees were required to avoid the Sugar Pine Mine area for safety reasons, and to travel in pairs while in the field. One BLM staffer, who received anonymous email threats and believes he was followed home once, temporarily moved his family out of their home. Sugar Pine miner Barclay was quoted in a local paper, asking supporters to “please stop calling the BLM and threatening their personnel.”

The sheriff wanted to protect the miners’ rights, despite his reservations about the influx of outsiders. He believed the miners were already on a course to victory: “Because their fight was for due process, and due process was happening from the very beginning, they were fighting for a cause that was already happening.” On April 22, the miners filed an appeal to the BLM’s finding of non-compliance.

Joseph Rice of the Josephine County, Oregon, Oath Keepers brandishes the U.S. Constitution at a rally last April outside the local Bureau of Land Management office. The rally was in support of George Backes and Rick Barclay (pictured from left), who had been ordered to file new paperwork or stop mining their claim on BLM land.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Outside the Medford BLM office on April 23, 2015, Rice stood on the edge of an open tailgate, microphone in hand, a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket, and lectured a crowd of dozens of supporters, reporters and observers. “We have a cultural issue with the Bureau of Land Management, where they believe their rules and their administration is more important than following the law of the land, the United States Constitution,” he said. “If they had given these two gentlemen their day in court, we would not be here. … Today, it’s the Sugar Pine Mine; where is it going to be next?”

Emerick and Rice had told the media they did not want another Bundy-like standoff, yet calls for more volunteers, combined with incendiary rhetoric, continued for weeks. The conservative Next News Network released a video, saying, “Your very presence may in fact save lives and prevent this from being the spark triggering the next American Civil War. … The BLM has a history of burning down cabins with residents inside.”

The narrative inspired dozens of supporters to make donations to the Operation Gold Rush PayPal account and even drive to Oregon themselves. Many of the self-described Patriots came to fulfill their own vision of patriotism, which may have had little to do with mining or other natural resource regulations. At the staging area near Grants Pass — a gravel parking lot with a welcome table, tents and trailers — the mood was either sober and calm, or chaotic and exciting, depending on whom you ask. 

During the month after the call to action, Oath Keepers and their associates released what appear to be multiple misleading statements. One indicated that the BLM had brought in additional “armed security contractors” to deal with Operation Gold Rush. That turned out to be a group holding a lunchtime going-away party for a BLM employee at a local pizza joint. When a helicopter was spotted near the Sugar Pine Mine area that week, the Oath Keepers warned that the BLM was planning a raid at the mine. But it was a private helicopter, unrelated to the events on the ground.

The response from Josephine County itself was mixed, though a significant number of locals felt intimidated by the new presence in town. County Commissioner Cherryl Walker fielded phone calls from concerned residents who noticed an unusual number of out-of-towners openly carrying firearms. Folks were unsettled, Walker says, because “it was an armed presence of people not under command of any official organization.” One ad hoc group of locals, Together for Josephine, held a press conference on the steps of the courthouse to voice their discomfort with the newcomers.

To some, the end of Operation Gold Rush came as anti-climactic. There was no dramatic standoff, as there was at Bundy Ranch a year earlier. In May, the Interior Board of Land Appeals allowed the miners to stay on the claims until the board had a chance to make a decision. Backes and Barclay maintain that they have the right to develop the un-patented claims as they wish under the 1872 General Mining Law. The BLM says that because the claim was temporarily ceded in 1963, it should be regulated under the 1955 Surface Resources Act. But even if the claim is grandfathered into the older law, the agency says the amount of surface activity at Sugar Pine requires the miners to file a notice or plan of operations.

The miners and their allies saw the board’s ruling as a victory, and Rice ordered a stand-down. “BLM has been conducting itself lawlessly without fear of accountability,” Rice wrote. “Operation Gold Rush has changed that.” The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and other supporters headed home.

 

George Backes pushes an ore bucket into the lower adit of Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon, where Oath Keepers set up camp last April to support the miners in their dispute with the Bureau of Land Management.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

On a warm afternoon last fall, with the sun hanging low over the dark, woodsy landscape, George Backes, the 71-year-old co-owner of the Sugar Pine Mine, sat at a picnic table outside his modest home near Grants Pass while his wife cooked dinner inside. I asked him about his dispute with the BLM, and he smiled. Like most of the owners of the 1,100 or so mining claims in the local districts, Backes seems like a regular guy, an entrepreneur trying to make some money from mining his property. But his individual skirmish with bureaucrats had become part of a national war. “We’re going into the big times,” he said.

From his perspective, he and Operation Gold Rush had won this particular battle, and he believed that he had a strong administrative case against the feds. Whether or not the Interior board will favor the Sugar Pine miners (it usually sides with the BLM in these types of disputes), they already had hit it big. During the previous two Sagebrush Rebellions, in the 1970s and ’90s, Backes’ plight might not have been noticed outside the local community. But today’s Sagebrush Insurgency quickly mobilized supporters from across the country and turned Sugar Pine into a national rallying point.

Sugar Pine invigorated sagebrush insurgents West-wide. In Montana last year, after the federal government sued two miners for shirking regulations, several JoCo Oath Keepers became closely involved, traveling there or supporting the defendants from afar. Rice, also a co-founder of the Pacific Patriots Network, which includes the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and the Oregon Constitutional Guard, helped spread the word to bring Patriots to Burns, Oregon, in January to protest the re-sentencing of ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond. Rice quickly became central to negotiations during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, which grew out of that protest.

Whether it’s the Bundy Ranch standoff, Operation Gold Rush, or the Malheur occupation, today’s Sagebrush Insurgencies are “radicalization nodes,” as Daryl Johnson, a domestic terrorism expert and former Department of Homeland Security employee, describes them. At each new gathering, far-flung Patriots forge new relationships, and new recruits are drawn into the movement. At a meeting of ranchers in Utah last fall, the head of Arizona’s branch of the White Mountain Militia, Cope Reynolds, encouraged ranchers to refuse to pay their grazing fees and offered his group’s services to ward off federal overreach.

Pat Fitzsimmons, another Josephine County Oath Keeper, stands guard at the military recruitment and training center in Grants Pass, Oregon. He started his daily guard in July, after four Marines were killed by a gunman at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Another participant in that meeting who encouraged ranchers to stop paying fees became the first fatality in the new Sagebrush Insurgency. On Jan. 26, Arizona resident and Malheur occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed during a confrontation with Oregon State Police and the FBI near Burns, Oregon.

More lasting local impacts of Sugar Pine remain to be seen. The BLM’s Whittington and the national BLM office say Sugar Pine didn’t permanently change any major agency protocols. Some locals want Rice to run for county commissioner — chapter membership grew during Operation Gold Rush — while others believe that the group tarnished its image with the show of force. At the national level, Oath Keepers spokesman Jason Van Tatenhove calls the JoCo chapter a “flagship” for the organization.

In November, long after the dust had settled, Rice received a call from a miner in the southern part of Josephine County. The BLM was cutting down trees and putting them in the creek, he said — encroaching on his mining turf, the “It’s All Mine” claim. Would Rice visit him to talk about it, and would the Oath Keepers be able to stand by in case things got out of hand? Rice said yes, of course. He had sworn an oath, and he aimed to keep it.

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She is based in Paonia, Colorado. 

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.