On Jan. 2, 2016, a group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. They claim that the occupation is about protecting farmers and ranchers from the tyranny of the federal government, but some people accuse them of being radicals or even terrorists.
This series is an attempt to provide a better understanding of the situation by looking at some of the factors that led up to it.
Editor’s Note: Ammon Bundy and four of his followers were arrested Tuesday night following a highway confrontation with state and federal agents that left one other occupier dead. Two more occupiers were detained in Burns shortly afterwards.
Ammon Bundy is now asking the remaining occupiers to end the standoff (through a letter released by his attorney). Eight more occupiers left the refuge on Wednesday — three were arrested by FBI agents as they left, while the other five were allowed to pass through the checkpoints. Five people still remain in the compound.
Part 5: THE CONCLUSION
You can listen to this story in the media player above, or check out the full-text version below.
“In the West, you have enough folks that are just law-abiding,” says Casper Bendixsen, the researcher I spoke to about the history of the American West. He continues, “They pay their fines and fees, they use the land [but] they understand it requires management because there’s other activities going on. And if they did want to resolve this idea of them being the managers over this land, yelling and shouting and pointing guns I don’t think would really be their strategy.”
As you may remember, Bendixson was raised on a farm and ranch in Idaho, where his family grazed livestock on land managed by the National Forest Service and the BLM. Because of this background, he’s sympathetic to the public land issues faced by farmers and ranchers in the West and understands why many of them are wary of the federal government. “My family’s relationship with federal authorities wasn’t always all that comfortable either,” he says. But at the end of the day, Bendixsen’s family did what most ranchers do: they paid their fees and abided by the laws of the land.
Of course, the men occupying the Malheur Refuge right now (as well as the hundreds of other militiamen1 who have converged on Burns in the past month) aren’t local ranchers. Almost all of them are out-of-state militants using the plight of the Western rancher to get some face time for their antigovernment platform. And why wouldn’t they? It certainly worked at the Bundy Ranch in 2014, when armed militiamen forced federal agents to return Cliven Bundy’s impounded cattle despite the fact that he owed more than $1 million in grazing fees.2
“When I say [Cliven] Bundy beat the government, I mean he got away with something that other farmers and ranchers don’t dare get away with,” says Bendixsen. “It certainly has tones of letting the American farmer and rancher get away with more… Especially when they’re caucasian and Christian,” he adds after a brief pause.
In Bendixsen’s mind, the current occupation in Oregon is a direct result of what happened at the Bundy Ranch in 2014. “The fact that this is happening now is because essentially Cliven Bundy succeeded in Nevada, so they’re doing it again…People are going to realize that this mantle, this stage of pastoralism is an effective podium,” he says.
Effective indeed. Since the occupation began more than three weeks ago, news crews from across the country have given Ammon Bundy and his fellow militiamen hundreds of hours of airtime to rail against the tyranny of the federal government and the BLM.
It was Ammon’s hope that local farmers and ranchers would be inspired by the occupation and eventually come take it over themselves. But locals are overwhelmingly against it, even if they share the militia’s hostility towards the BLM.
“They feel like the BLM has too much authority,” says Spencer Sunshine, the researcher I spoke with about antigovernment groups. “They don’t like how the BLM deals with them for their drawing rights and such, and… they feel like what happened to the Hammonds is unfair, but the vast majority of the community just absolutely does not want them there.”
Locals have organized numerous protests against the occupation, and signs reading “MILITIA GO HOME” can be seen on signposts throughout downtown Burns.2 Many influential farm groups have denounced the occupation as well, including the Oregon Cattleman’s Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau, which has been working directly with the Hammonds on their case (as you’ll remember from Part 2, the Hammonds themselves have also disowned the occupation).
But nothing captures the disconnect between Ammon Bundy’s antigovernment militia and real ranchers like the story Bendixson told me right before we ended our conversation. I think it’s a fitting way to close out this series:
“I was talking to a rancher friend last night, over in Montana. And he’s conservative and he, you know, he doesn’t like our president and he likes his guns and stuff like that. And we were talking about it and I said, ‘What do you think about the fact that these guys are not even really farming and ranching full time?’ and he didn’t know that. So we talked about it a little bit and he said, ‘Well I guess it makes a lot of sense ‘cause I was talking to my wife the other day and she said, ‘How the hell do these guys have time to do this shit?? I’m too busy feedin’ cows!’
“And so I think when it comes down to it, farmers and ranchers, the way they like to spend their time is raisin’ crops, raisin’ kids, raisin’ herds up, you know? And so to take a battle up like this — it’s not how the normal farmer and rancher wants to spend their time at all. But it is how antigovernment folks want to spend their time. It’s exactly how they want to spend their time.”
1. Federal rangers face off against armed protesters in Nevada ‘range war’ (The Guardian)
2. Who Wants A Burns Standoff? Not The Sheriff, The Ranchers, Or Even Cliven Bundy (Oregon Public Broadcast)