A new and more dangerous Sagebrush Rebellion


At first, as the armed occupation in Oregon's High Desert unfolded in January, it looked like a widescreen version of the flare-ups we've seen in the West ever since the Sagebrush Rebellion erupted in the 1970s. Recall the so-called "oppressed ranchers," their anti-federal rhetoric and the sight of cowboy-hatted heroes riding to their rescue.

But a closer look, and the episode's violent culmination, reveal a bigger and more sinister problem than your run-of-the-mill local-control scuffle.

For starters, precious few locals or even ranchers were among the couple of dozen occupiers of Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The lead occupier, Ammon Bundy, may look the part, but he actually owns a truck-fleet maintenance business in Phoenix. 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 for 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 that activists can denounce, defy and perhaps even engage in battle. 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.

The groups are bound together by libertarian-tinged ideology, disdain if not hatred for Obama, and by 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 occurred at incidents like the Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada, where members from all of these different movements -- elected officials included -- stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the "rights" of what they portrayed as a persecuted rancher.

It happened again at Malheur, though less harmoniously. While some politicians questioned the methods used by the occupiers, the more hardcore ones, such as Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, continued to stand by the Bundys and further inflame the situation with incendiary rhetoric aimed at the federal land-management agencies. So-called think tanks like the American Lands Council, which advocates local control of publicly owned land, simultaneously tried to distance itself from the occupiers and use their actions to further its own agenda.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate Ted Cruz and libertarian Rand Paul have embraced the American Lands Council's and the occupiers' shared ideology. The earlier Sagebrush Rebellion of the likes of uranium miner Cal Black, or Nevada rancher Wayne Hage, has been co-opted by a far larger right-wing movement.

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 they actually have some legitimate gripes regarding land-use regulations, or more likely, ranchers and loggers better fit the populist image they're trying to project. It's not so easy to fight against gun control when the laws are laxer than ever, or revolt against the taxman 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 can make them ripe for insurgencies of the Bundy sort. Then there are the cowboy hats, which give a noble look to even those fighting for the causes of capitalist billionaires.

Past rebellions weren't entirely nonviolent. Land was bulldozed, federal officials were threatened and Forest Service facilities bombed. Now, however, these new rebels have the power of so-called militiamen and their arsenals behind them. In extreme cases, the local "constitutional sheriff" has even joined with those who defy federal laws and regulations. It's all combined to create a potentially dangerous situation.

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."

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is a senior editor of the magazine and is based in Durango, Colorado.

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