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.

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