Malheur refuge occupiers trade in false claims and vandalism

How not to make a point ...

Any moral high ground claimed by Ammon Bundy and his followers relative to federal tyranny has long since eroded and it is past time to end their armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Initially, Bundy and his heavily armed followers rolled into Burns, Oregon, from Nevada to highlight federal harassment of a local rancher and his son. The specifics of the case are important -- the Hammonds were convicted of arson in a local court by a jury of their peers. Given a shortened sentence, as advocated by the prosecutor, the Hammonds served their time. A subsequent appellate court found the jail term did not follow mandatory sentencing requirements and directed them to serve additional time. Local sentiment was with the Hammonds who were viewed as having done their time and, to be clear, the local protest was about the Hammonds return to jail.

After the protest, and seemingly on a whim, Bundy and his followers drove out to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, which was unoccupied over the holiday weekend. At this point, rhetoric and reality diverge.

The occupiers claim armed occupation is necessary to end persecution and federal tyranny. Bundy demands freedom for the Hammonds and that federal lands be "returned" to local authority to end the occupation. On the first point, the Hammonds voluntarily returned to jail, clearly stated the occupiers do not speak for them and that they do not support an armed occupation. Land status is a bit more complex. The refuge is within ancestral territory of the Paiute indians; local tribal officials denounced the armed takeover and return of land to "local control" as offensive and view federal managers as partners who help protect the tribes' cultural resources and access to the land. The refuge itself began with federal lands in the area (Malheur Lake and nearby Mud and Haney lakes) designated for protection by President Theodore Roosevelt; subsequent additions to the refuge were purchased from willing sellers. So, no ranchers were evicted from the land -- eminent domain was never invoked, nor was there any forced federal takeover. In fact, grazing continues on refuge lands -- a goal of the comprehensive conservation management plan for the refuge. Local ranchers describe this 2013 plan as an excellent approach that provides flexibility for both public land managers and ranchers.

Federal tyranny as identified by the occupiers relates to conflicts rooted in the development of public land management practices. The early 20th century saw delegation of public domain lands to specific federal agencies and subsequent implementation of various land management practices. Notably, those who had freely accessed public lands for grazing, mining, timbering and other activities were faced for the first time with fees for use of public resources and thus began the "Sagebrush Rebellion." Much has been said and litigated over this conflict, and some (like Bundy) continue to fight any federal controls.

Back to Oregon -- local ranchers acknowledge difficult past relations and raise concerns about ongoing grievances, but general sentiment is that conflict resolution comes from people getting together to work things out. Furthermore, the occupiers should leave -- locals are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and resent the outsider Bundy trying to be the "face" of their ranching community. Somewhat ironically, the occupation triggered an outpouring of support for the refuge by a variety of users -- from backcountry hunters and anglers to birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, in addition to local ranchers and the local Paiute Tribe. So, instead of drawing support for his cause, the opposite occurred with broadly articulated support for public lands and their associated values.

A final insult is the blatant disrespect and vandalism of the refuge -- offices trashed, personal information used to identify and then harass employees, vehicles used (although one occupier driving a refuge vehicle off the refuge was arrested), a fence removed (rebuilt the next day by the irritated neighboring rancher). In short, the occupation is illegal, they are not welcome, it is long past time for this to end and the occupiers be held accountable for their actions.

Rosa Meehan is a guest editor at Alaska Dispatch News. She is retired after a long career in Alaska with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now runs her own environmental consulting firm. She lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.