Can we make sense of the Malheur mess?

A writer finds camaraderie and despair inside the Oregon standoff.


What more can be said? I was one of the hundreds of journalists who went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Ammon Bundy occupation, and I saw the same things that all the rest of them did. If there was any difference between myself and those hundreds of other journalists, maybe it was that I went there looking for kindred spirits.

I am a self-employed, American-born writer with a wife and two teenage children living in a tiny town on the plains of Montana. I’m a reader of the U.S. Constitution, one who truly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees the survival of the rest of the Bill of Rights. I came of age reading Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy, Orwell’s 1984, and a laundry-list of anarchists, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Bakunin and Proudhon, who gave me the maxim that defined my early twenties: “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.” I read Malthus and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and am a skeptic of government power. I was not surprised when I read about the outrage over the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond for arson: Federal mandatory minimum sentencing has been a terrible idea since its inception. I am gobsmacked by an economy that seems engineered to impoverish anyone who dares try make their own living, and by a government that seems more and more distant from the people it represents, except when calling up our sons and daughters to attack chaotic peoples that clearly have nothing to do with me or anybody I know.

I am isolated by a culture that is as inscrutable to me as any in the mountains of Afghanistan. For loving wilderness and empty lands and birdsong rather than teeming cities, I risk being called a xenophobe, a noxious nativist. For viewing guns as constitutionally protected, essential tools of self-defense and, if need be, liberation, I’m told that I defend the massacres of innocents in mass shootings. When I came to Montana at age twenty-five, I found in this vast landscape, especially in the public lands where I hunted and camped and worked, the freedom that was evaporating in the South, where I grew up. I got happily lost in the space and the history. For a nature-obsessed, gun-soaked malcontent like me, it was home, and when Ammon Bundy and his men took over the Malheur refuge, on a cold night in January, I thought I should go visit my neighbors.

Neil Wampler, 68, smokes a cigarette at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

At first light on Jan. 12, in the parking lot above the headquarters of the Malheur refuge, I met Neil Wampler, a tall, white-bearded man in his sixties who was standing in the snow, at twelve degrees above, wearing a pair of old black running shoes and a green coat over a hooded sweatshirt. He was near the campfire where the occupiers would gather, behind the big white pickup that blocked the road into the refuge headquarters and that was emblazoned with signs that said, “Clemency for the Hammonds. Blaine Cooper, whose real name would be revealed as Stanley Blaine Hicks (with felonious history) of Humboldt, Arizona, was sitting in the pickup with the heat blasting. Cooper looked like an urban model – perfectly trimmed and moussed black hair, pale blue eyes, and, oddly, given the place and the weather – 4,100 foot elevation, sagebrush steppe, severe ice fog – a lightweight black Calvin Klein jacket. As I approached the open window of the truck, Cooper said something to me about how the government had to be opposed. I was holding my legal pad and trying to make notes, but then he said something to the effect that “the left” had killed and enslaved people and blown up buildings to create this refuge, and I smiled, nodded, and kept walking. I learned from covering wolf reintroduction in 2000 that the most outlandish quotes, however entertaining, ruin stories. I shook hands with Wampler, who was much calmer than Cooper, didn’t seem to be suffering from the cold, and actually looked like he was having a good time.

“I’m just the cook, really,” he said. “Been cooking for the crew since Bunkerville.” He smiled, “And I can tell you, it’s good to be the cook.” When he told me that the goal was for a federal transfer of the refuge lands to the states, I asked him how much he knew about what would happen to the lands if they were successful. He admitted that he didn’t know, really. “This is a deep study,” he said. “Our previous actions were more protective, to keep the federal government from harming the citizens. This is different, because the states are asserting their 10th Amendment prerogatives. When our founders created the states out of the territories, 95 percent of it was meant to be private land.”

I asked him if he knew the history of this place - the range wars, the overgrazing, the plume hunters that led to the establishment of the refuge in 1908. He admitted that he did not, but that he would like to know more. “You really need to meet Ammon, and talk to him about these things,” he said. “I’m amenable to other solutions, but we have to rid ourselves of this government. All three branches are out of control. When we were at Bunkerville, the BLM had attack dogs, snipers, tasers. I saw that happening on television in California, and by 10 am that morning, I was packed up and on the road to join up. And we had a great victory there.” He brightened, and the circuit-preacher intensity of his voice was gone. “I’ll get off my soapbox now. I’m an old hippy, and this is a high, the most exciting and energizing thing. I’m off my butt, I’m 68 years old, and my friends back home are so jealous. To be an old hippy from San Francisco, and to be in this mix, to be friends with a redneck from Alabama. It’s beautiful.” Unlike the other occupiers around the fire, Wampler was not conspicuously armed, perhaps because, as other reporters would uncover, he has a 38-year-old conviction for second degree murder (of his father) in California, a crime for which he long ago served his time but which precludes him from legally owning firearms.

As I write this, the Malheur occupation has come to an end, with Sean and Sandy Anderson, with whom I spent a pleasant hour or so talking politics and smoking cigarettes, surrendering as the last of the holdouts, along with the youthful techie, the seemingly demented Ohioan, David Fry. The likeable Andersons, in their late forties, seemed to me a most unlikely couple to rant for blood and maelstrom.  They had only recently moved to Riggins, Idaho, from Wisconsin, and I wondered if they had not misread the West, and Idaho, and fallen in with militants when they might just as easily have met and joined a band of merry ice fishermen. During our conversation, Sean had to keep reminding Sandy to keep her weapon with her, as she shifted from place to place trying to get warm - they wore cotton fatigues more suited to the jungle than the Great Basin in deepest winter. Sean had some authority; at least, he had a radio, and he politely kept me from going down to the refuge headquarters until he got word that it was alright, and he had his (outdated but effective) Ruger Mini-14 slung or close at hand. I took some ribbing for being unarmed, and when I said I wasn’t sure that my Montana concealed carry permit was even reciprocated by Oregon, Sean patted the little pocket Constitution visible in his coat pocket, and said, “This is the only permit you’ll ever need.” (On Jan. 30, Sean probably cooked his own goose, legally speaking, with a Fry-enabled YouTube rant about killing federal agents.)

I am doing my best here to be respectful of people with whom, it turned out, I disagree strongly, even violently. I could focus upon the essential nuttiness of the occupation, the lack of a plan for an outcome, the exhaustion of being assailed with pocket Constitutions any time one presents an argument that cannot be easily countered. Crackpots are drawn to such an open event like moths to a halogen light (and, no, I do not automatically exempt myself from the category). I wanted to find occupiers who could argue for what they were doing, but what is there to say when people take up arms inspired by, say, a belief that the President is the front for an Islamic takeover of the nation, or that the Chinese are already committed to buying the uranium that lies underneath the Hammond ranch.

I went to Malheur to ask questions and to listen, to learn and report. But what can be reported when your source is convinced of plots and powers that do not exist? When I asked whether they were endangering the Second Amendment by brandishing AR-15s, the answer was that an occupation like this was the entire purpose of the Second Amendment. When I asked whether, since the county was the highest level of government recognized, the occupiers would stand down if the sheriff asked them to (Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, of course, already had), they said no, because Sheriff Ward was a tool of the oppressors. And when I asked whether they would stand down if the Oregon National Guard came and asked them to, they said it was too late for that. And so on.

In the parking lot was a skinny bearded man in denim whose entire car was covered with professionally made ads for doctors who will surgically remove government-installed microchips from your brain (“If you were born after 1980…”). A young woman in a fur-trimmed coat and tall leather fashion boots approached me and one of the occupiers and asked us to guide her around. The occupier, a preternaturally soft-spoken and friendly man in his forties, unarmed, asked her what she wanted to see, and she said, “Anything I’m not supposed to see.” He looked at me and shrugged, then dutifully led her through the sagebrush. She was quickly back, asked me for my name, and then sped away into the ice fog in a Prius.

A car with ads about government-implanted microchips, with links to websites about various conspiracy theories parked at the entrance to the refuge headquarters.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

There was the legless man – James – who was carried in his wheelchair across the snow to join us at the fire, an energetic and apocalyptic monologist of almost surreal dullness, who beseeched the Lord for forgiveness each time he cursed and insisted on being lifted from his chair so he could kneel in the cold mud beside the fire pit and pray for us all, whose wheelchair constantly threatened to tip over or roll forward into the flames, despite the blocks of firewood and kindling we jammed under the front wheels. In the seemingly endless quest to haul breakfast or coffee or ammo on a rope up into the 90-foot steel fire lookout that overlooks the parking lot, a trapdoor banged, causing Sean Anderson to flinch (we are, after all, in a heavily armed encampment that is illegally occupying a federal wildlife refuge, despite the freshman debate team campout atmosphere), and say, “I thought it was on, there for a second.” To which James shouted, “I hope it is! I hope it is! Bring on the fire!” A series of refuge-owned ATVs came up the icy road, ridiculously fast, fishtailing on the trail to the fire tower, and James cheered. “I love everybody here!” he exclaimed.

To focus on the bizarre, to wallow in the cheap pleasures of ridicule, is to sacrifice any chance of finding meaning or instruction here. Jason Patrick, one of the eleven occupiers now in jail, told me that he could not care less what happened to the lands at the Malheur, or what the history of the place was. “It says in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, that the federal government has no right to own any of these lands. That’s it. If we don’t abide by the Constitution, which limits what the federal government can do, then we have no rule of law, we have no country.” Patrick is 43 years old and wears khaki pants, a dress shirt and a blue blazer, as if ready to address a court rather than stand in the snow, smoke Marlboro Lights, and talk to reporters and other skeptics, which is what he did most of the time I saw him.

One morning, we stood outside the refuge headquarters, a venerable building of rough-cut local stone. Within, Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and the core group were having yet another meeting to prepare for the upcoming press briefing. The sun came briefly through the fog, and Patrick and I stood smoking and being pelted with bits of rime falling from the old Siberian elms and cottonwoods as the sun heated them. Below us, Duane Ehmer of Irrigon, Oregon (who might have been the only native Oregonian in the occupation), was feeding his cow-horse, Hellboy, from hay stacked by his rusted white horse trailer, both of them taking a break from being the symbol of the occupation, the too-much-photographed man on the horse with the American flag.

In his other life, Ehmer is a welder, rides Hellboy in jousting matches, hunts black bear on horse-packing trips in the national forest. Because he is convinced that the federal government will soon sell off all public lands or close them to the public, he worries about the loss of access to places to ride his horses. He gets $130 a month in disability payments for hearing loss incurred while he was in the military. His weapons are mostly symbolic, a cap-and-ball Colt revolver, and a single-shot 12 gauge shotgun. I suspect that he does not have the ready cash to buy the AR-15s and Trijicon sights, the tactical sniper rifles tricked with the latest optics, the Glock handguns that are the norm among his colleagues, but it could be that he just has no interest in newfangled lethal gadgetry. He showed me his classic 1859 McClellan cavalry saddle, and told me he was trying to get a relative to bring down his cavalry saber. (“And they call me a terrorist,” he said, shaking his head.) He is in jail now, too.

Jason Patrick is no cowboy, and doesn’t try to be. He isn’t a physical fitness buff, rugged outdoorsman, or gunner. He might share with Ammon Bundy and the rest of the Mormon contingent of occupiers the belief that the Constitution is divinely inspired, but that’s not clear, because he does not talk religion. He reveres the Constitution as the ultimate stopgap to a government that, in his view, ruins everything it touches or tries to guide. His disdain for President Barack Obama is matched by his fury at George W. Bush. Patrick had a roofing business in Georgia that collapsed with the economic crash of 2008, and he believes, as I do, that the endless wars and crony capitalism of the Bush era destroyed the assets of middle-class America, while “too big to fail” government relief programs further evaporated our money upward and away. Like Sean Anderson, Patrick is tired of a government that sends young people away to die in wars that profit, to an often obscene degree, the one class whose children will never serve in them. “My father was a Vietnam veteran,” Patrick said, “and we lived on a homestead in Virginia that we cut out of the woods. We were off the grid a long time before that was ever a thing to be.” His father died when Patrick was twelve years old, he says, of cancer related to wartime exposure to Agent Orange. His mother spent years trying to collect veteran’s benefits to support their family.

Jason Patrick and Neil Wampler walk along the road to the wildlife refuge headquarters before the first of many press conferences during the standoff.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Our conversation was interrupted by Finicum, who was coming out the door with a harried expression. Finicum and Patrick had a short and slightly heated exchange over who had failed to clean up the refuge woodworking shop. As Patrick headed over to the shop, I was reminded of other groups I’ve known or been a part of, anarchist, communal, certain families, where hierarchy is rejected, and how the smallest chore takes Herculean effort to address or convince someone else to address. This was my only contact with Finicum beside the circus-like press conferences held in the parking lot. I learned later that, like Patrick, Finicum had his own business failure behind him, a bankruptcy in 2002, and an admission to reporters that his ranch, even before he renounced his federal grazing leases, just covered expenses (which is why his main business was taking in foster children). With a huge family of his own, reports place the number of Finicum’s children at either eleven or fourteen – I cannot imagine how anyone can survive, much less prosper, in the current US economy, with that many mouths to feed, that many shoes to buy. Even with the comfort of strong religious faith, the stress of meeting the bills every month must have been profound. Watching Finicum walk away, clean Wranglers with his camouflage gaiters pulled tightly to the knees, a squared-away Westerner at home in the snow and the cold, I could not have guessed that he would be the one to die in this chaotic, seemingly pointless takeover.

It was clear to me, though, that somebody would die. Such certitude as these men and women possess demands blood sacrifice to justify itself. There were too many armed people in, and circling, the occupation, with too many varying levels of sanity and too many varying motivations for being there. Even Neil Wampler, a man whose demons seem like they are mostly in his past, had said, “You can’t not give an inch and be assured of a peaceful outcome. If it came down to a violent showdown, we’re willing to pay the price.” Walking around the refuge parking lot and buildings, I saw a lot of gray beards and “We the People” caps and camo watch caps covering thinning hair or bald pates. The weapons and the tactical vests lent a seriousness to men disappearing into the irrelevance of late middle age. Guns,  for as long as we have had them, have given undue impetus to arguments that lack merit or reason, given credence to delusional rants.

The American West has the highest suicide rates in the nation, and has since frontier days. The current epidemic of suicide among white males in the US is part of the story here – in a recent article at Salon, Robert Hennelly wrote, “According to federal morbidity stats in 1999, 9,599 white men killed themselves. By 2010 that number was 14,379. In 2013 the U.S. recorded 41,149 suicides, 70 percent of which were white men, who mostly shot themselves. The most heavily affected demographic is middle-aged white men in the 45 to 64 age cohort.

This die-off may serve as a kind of anthropological warning about the pernicious nature of global capitalism and how it treats those its marketplace judges surplus…”

Forty-five to 64 is exactly the age bracket that dominated the occupation of the Malheur.  Camaraderie and unity of purpose are the strongest antidotes to despair, and despite the conflicting opinions and anarchic individualism of so many in the modern militia movements, unity in fiery opposition to the federal government, especially a federal government headed by a Democrat, is the universal.

It does no good whatsoever to try and discuss with them the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which empowered the Bundy family and many others among the 18,000 or so other public lands grazers to own small holdings, usually around a water source, and graze their livestock on public lands around those holdings for what may arguably be the lowest grazing fee on the planet. Most of the occupiers have never heard of the Taylor Grazing Act, and those who might have, insist that “grazing rights” on public land are a property right attached to the base private land. No amount of arguing will convince them otherwise, although the Bureau of Land Management will plainly state that grazing of BLM lands is not a property right, or a right at all, any more than my neighbor’s home and yard is mine if I rent it, or that my renting a home means the owner cannot sell it or rent it to somebody else, or paint it a different color. When presented with that fact, an occupier like Jason Patrick will merely say that the BLM has no right to exist.

No one seemed interested in the fate of the lands they were claiming in the takeover. None could explain why a mostly Gentile band of militants were now following what is almost entirely a Mormon-led insurrection, with a man named Ammon, named after the leader of the Nephites, at the head, or a man who calls himself Captain Moroni (Alma 59:13 “And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country”) on guard duty, or a spokesman like Finicum, whose ranch in Cane Beds, Arizona is less than two miles from the FLDS enclave of Colorado City. The Gentile militants seem uninterested in how they might fit in to a renewed State of Deseret, even though the language that the Bundy leaders use is almost identical to the 19th century plans for that kingdom, and the Malheur lies at the very northern expanse of the old State of Deseret claims. They do not see themselves as volunteers in a new version of the Nauvoo Legion from the Utah War of 1857-58 because none of them seem to know, or be interested in, any of that history.

Finicum must have known the history of his homeland in the Arizona Strip, which in the time of his grandfather was almost denuded by the overstocking of 100,000 head of cattle, and which, in the 1890’s, even the hard-as-nails cattleman and visionary pioneer Preston Nutter could not control. A smallholder like Finicum, unless he had his own militia, would not have survived one season in the early settlement years of the Arizona Strip. The battles over water sources and the destruction of the range were such that Preston Nutter, not exactly a big-government kind of businessman, was a leading advocate for the Taylor Grazing Act.

The sign the armed group affixed over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge sign.
Hal Herring

It is tempting to use the venerable Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but it doesn’t fit here. Ammon Bundy (I did not meet him during my visit to the refuge) may or may not know the history of land use in the West, but there will be no repeating the free-grazing era of the late 19th century. Not in the fastest-growing developed nation on earth, on a planet that will soon play host to nine or 10 billion human beings. Nothing will be free. What the militants are asking for is almost exactly what more mainstream political leaders like Rep. Rob Bishop, from Utah, or the American Lands Council, now headed by Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, say they want, too. The Malheur occupation, with the incessant press coverage in its early weeks, was the soapbox for disseminating payloads of misinformation about America’s public lands, about their management, about how and why we have them. Every soundbite was delivered to further the goal of privatization.

The Bundys and the militants who follow and support them are the agents of their own destruction.

Should these adherents to the land transfer movement succeed and have the public lands given or sold to the states, some version of the State of Deseret will almost certainly flourish. Such a place already exists, of course: the Deseret Ranches, owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints, 235,000 acres in Utah and 678,000 acres in Florida (2 percent of Florida’s landmass). The LDS corporation would certainly be prepared to make some very large purchases of what is now public land, but it is highly unlikely that any of the Bundy family, or any of Finicum’s many children, would be grazing their cows there. Smaller operators cannot own lands that do not put enough pounds on cows to pay property taxes. It is unlikely that any of the current crop of smallholder ranchers anywhere in the West will be able to bid for productive land against the Church; or against families like the Wilks of Texas, who have so far bought over 300,000 acres of austere grazing land north south of the Missouri Breaks in Montana; or the Koch family, whose ranch holdings comprise about 460,000 acres (including almost a quarter million acres in Montana); or Ted Turner, who has some 2 million acres across the US; or Stan Kroenke, who two years ago purchased the 165,000-acre Broken O Ranch in Montana and has just bought the 510,000 acre W.T. Waggoner Ranch in Texas.

Buyers, in a world packed and competitive beyond the imaginations of those who set aside these unclaimed and abandoned lands as forest reserves and public grazing lands in the early 1900s, are now everywhere, planet-wide. As Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, when he was president of the American Lands Council, famously said of privatizing federal lands, “It’s like having your hands on the lever of a modern-day Louisiana Purchase.”

When that lever is pulled, and it will be, unless a majority of Americans know enough about what is at stake to oppose it, we will live through the transformation of our country. Federal water rights that underpin entire agricultural economies, and that are critical to some of the last family farms and ranches in America, will be in play. Few Americans, even those in the cities of the east who know nothing about these lands, will be untouched in some way by the transformation. Once the precedent for divesting federal lands is well-set, the eastern public lands, most of them far more valuable than those in the West, will go on the international auction block. The unique American experiment in balancing the public freedom and good with private interests will be forever shattered, while a new kind of inequality soars, not just inequality of economics and economic opportunity, but of life experience, the chance to experience liberty itself. The understanding that we all share something valuable in common – the vast American landscape, yawning to all horizons and breathtakingly beautiful – will be further broken. These linked notions of liberty and unity and the commons have been obstacles to would-be American oligarchs and plutocrats from the very founding of our nation, which is why they have been systematically attacked since the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist Thomas Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my childhood, and of Lewis’ writings on the nature of evil, where evil is never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature, has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes hatred of those we believe don’t share our devotion, or don’t share it the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a world replete with man’s endeavors. The U.S. Constitution, one of the most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement.

version of this essay was also published in our magazine, on March 21, 2016.

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