Modern sagebrush rebels recycle old Western fantasies

 

Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of scofflaw Nevada rancher Clive Bundy, appear to have made an ambitious New Year's resolution: Force the federal government, which has managed more than half of the American West's lands for the past century, to relinquish them, at gun point if necessary, to the locals.

Over the weekend, the Bundy brothers and a group of a few dozen or so militiamen and their sympathizers took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon and declared it a safe haven for well-armed "patriots" who oppose federal land management.

Militia standing guard at the entrance of the road leading to the occupied buildings at the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. They cut down signs and used them to fuel a fire.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The group is demanding that the federal government release local ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Stephen, who are scheduled to report to federal prison this week to finish serving time for intentionally setting fires in 2001 and 2006, burning up hundreds of acres of public lands. They also want the government to hand over the 1.7 million-acre Malheur National Forest. According to OregonLive, Ryan Bundy said, "many would be willing to fight — and die, if necessary — to defend what they see as constitutionally protected rights for states, counties and individuals to manage local lands."

This latest action, like the Bundy affair of 2014, is little more than the recycling of old gripes from a small cadre of ranchers and miners. Their main complaint: They don't want to play by the rules that tens of thousands of other public land ranchers and miners abide by every day of the year, mostly involving minimal fees for the right to use federal lands owned by the public. Cliven Bundy started refusing to pay grazing fees in 1993, and the Hammonds began their "rebellion" against the feds in the early 1990s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a fence to keep their cattle from trespassing on the (now-occupied) Malheur refuge.

Though the militia folks attracted to the Bundy and Hammond tales of woe may not know it, the Sagebrush Rebellion is really a century-long pout over the end of the open and unregulated frontier. Its modern incarnations begin in the 1960s and 1970s, when Congress passed a slew of national environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and the agencies reluctantly began to implement them. By the early 1980s, disgruntled ranchers, who largely ran local and state politics, formed the "wise use" movement. Backed by opportunistic mining and logging companies, they pushed against environmental regulation and for increased resource extraction. For a while they found a sympathetic audience in the Reagan administration, but their dream of wresting the public lands from the feds gained no national traction.

The rebellion flared again in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried to increase grazing and mining fees, brokered a spotted owl plan that ended the Pacific Northwest's logging spree, and protected tens of millions of acres from development through executive orders. The "rebels," led by ranchers from New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Nevada, pushed back with a "county supremacy" movement. Dozens of Western county commissions approved cookie-cutter ordinances declaring that the federal government had no authority within their borders, and they enlisted lawyers who thought they could, on constitutional grounds, "take back" the federal lands. The courts repeatedly rejected their arguments.

Now the rural West is going through yet another wave of rebellion, sparked by the anxieties of a recession-scrambled, increasingly multicultural world, one that has left places like eastern Oregon grasping for a future. The rhetoric the Bundys are serving up this week sounds mighty enticing yet all-too-familiar.

In a video posted on OregonLive, Ammon Bundy says the refuge takeover, which could last "several years," aims to get "loggers back to logging, ranchers back to ranching and miners back to mining. At one time (Harney County, Oregon) was the wealthiest county in the state; today it is one of the poorest," he says. "We're going to be reversing this in just a few years by freeing up these lands and resources ... by getting them back to where they belong."

A new and noble New Year's resolution? No. Just a worn out fantasy that should be rejected by anyone who understands that the public lands are an irreplaceable national asset and that the West has moved on.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is executive director and publisher of High Country News, which has covered the American West for 45 years.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.