As the armed occupation in Oregon’s high desert unfolded in January, it initially looked like little more than a widescreen version of the flare-ups we’ve seen in the West ever since the Sagebrush Rebellion erupted in the 1970s: “oppressed ranchers,” anti-federal rhetoric, and even stoic cowboy-hatted heroes to ride to the rescue. But a closer look — and the occupation’s violent culmination — revealed a bigger, more sinister problem than your run-of-the-mill local-control scuffle.
For starters, precious few locals (or even ranchers) were among the couple dozen occupiers of the Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The lead occupier, Ammon Bundy, may look the part, but he actually owns a truck-fleet maintenance business in Phoenix and a McMansion in Emmett, Idaho. At one of his press conferences, Bundy said that he wasn’t just sticking up for “the ranchers, the loggers and the farmers,” but also the “auto industry, the health-care industry and financial advisors.” That remark, which ignored the federal largesse those industries receive, revealed the crusade’s true scope.
Whereas the Sagebrush Rebellion of old was driven largely by pragmatic, grassroots concerns, today’s version is purely ideological — a nationwide confluence of right-wing and libertarian extremists. Many of them have little interest in grazing allotments, mining laws or the Wilderness Act. It’s what these things symbolize that matters: A tyrannical federal government activists can denounce, defy and perhaps even engage in battle with. This movement, which has grown increasingly virulent since President Barack Obama’s election, has created a stew of ideologically similar groups, ready to coalesce around each other when necessary.
As we head into an election year, it’s worth noting that many of the extreme actions carried out by fringe groups, such as the Malheur occupation, inspire other hard-core ideologues and ultimately translate into votes for like-minded politicians. In return, those politicians support the extremists and try to push their views via legislation, thereby legitimizing and empowering them. The Sagebrush Rebellion, in other words, has been co-opted: militarized in some places and politicized in others. Politicians, militants, sheriffs and others from across the right-wing spectrum have, over the last few years, found common cause (for some examples, see chart below), attending conferences, rallies and events together, and putting their support behind a variety of agendas.
The groups are bound together by libertarian-tinged ideology, disdain for Obama and fear that the government will take away their guns, their liberty, their money, their land, their Confederate flags, and, yes, Christmas.
“What we’re seeing in the West is a number of extremist streams coming together to form a backdrop that is complicated and frankly confusing,” says Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The confluence has occurred at incidents like the Bundy Ranch standoff, where members from all of these different movements stood shoulder-to-shoulder to defend the “rights” of what they portrayed as a persecuted rancher. It also happened at Malheur, though in a less harmonious way: The Oath Keepers, a constitutionalist militia that has backed ranchers and miners on public lands, did not fully support the occupation because of its objections to the way it was carried out. Yet the more hardcore politicians, such as Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, continued to stand by the Bundys during and after the occupation. And other groups, like the American Lands Council, whose president is Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, while condemning the violence of the act, supported the beliefs behind it.
It’s not entirely clear why all of these folks, many of them urban, have taken up a rural Western cause. It might be because ranchers and loggers better fit the populist image they’re trying to project, or because they actually have some legitimate gripes regarding land-use regulations. It’s not so easy to fight against gun control when the laws are laxer than ever, or revolt against the tax man when taxes on the rich are far lower than they were in the 1950s. Perhaps it’s partly a matter of expedience: The dire economic straits in which many rural, extractive industry-reliant counties have found themselves have made them ripe for insurgencies of the Bundy sort.
Past rebellions weren’t entirely nonviolent, either; land was bulldozed, federal officials were threatened and Forest Service facilities bombed. “Now, however, the acts of violence are less random than they once were,” says Edward Patrovsky, a law enforcement agent for the BLM who worked in Southern California and Colorado from the late 1980s until 2004. “We have this network of militant groups working together, and I consider them to be much more dangerous than the more individualized, localized nature of the Sagebrush Rebellion.”
Last fall I talked to Sean Thomas, a Forest Service law enforcement officer stationed in southern Oregon, and the vice president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 5300. Thomas, who has faced the belligerence of a constitutional sheriff before, believes we stand at a pivotal moment. “The feeling we all have out here in the West,” he told me, months before the explosive events at Malheur, “is that this is a pressure cooker, and something’s about to blow.”
*If the graphic below is not interactive on your device, try the graphic in the sidebar, "Sagebrush Insurgency connections," to the left (make sure you are using the most updated version of your browser).
**The graphic below is representative of how intertwined these networks are, and does not comprehensively include every group or individual connected.