There’s been a lot in the news lately: a record blizzard in the eastern U.S.; President Obama’s controversial executive action on guns; Vladimir Putin’s reputed involvement in the assassination of a former Russian spy; the Middle East; the death of David Bowie; and the whacked 2016 presidential horserace, which the U.S. news continually obsesses over.
But there’s also an ongoing, “B-grade” story playing out in rural eastern Oregon at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Like a shy prairie dog, the story keeps poking its head out of its hole. On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that significant (thus far, nobody’s been killed). But it’s a tinderbox loaded with the stuff that makes many Americans salivate: domestic terrorism, the potential for violence, land rights, and (supposedly) the U.S. Constitution.
First, some background:
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a 293 square mile area located in Harney Basin in southeastern Oregon. It was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. For thousands of years, the land had been occupied by Northern Paiute Indians.
White settlers began farming and ranching this land in the late 19th century. In 1872, President Grant issued a presidential order that all Paiutes in southeastern Oregon be herded onto a reservation there. But the farmers and ranchers insisted the reservation boundaries be shrunk, and after the Bannock War of 1878, most Paiute were exiled to land in Washington State.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built roads and buildings on the refuge. Over time, federal purchases increased the size of the refuge. Since 1935, cattle grazing has been allowed on portions of the land. But such grazing has potential for doing harm to sensitive wildlife, and for decades a low-grade tension has existed between cattle ranchers and wildlife managers.
In addition to providing a haven for 320 species of birds and 58 species of mammals, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge also encompasses volcanic fields and geologic strata containing Pleistocene-era fossils.
In 2013, a compromise was reached between the cattle ranchers and refuge managers, where limited grazing is allowed in certain areas that do not threaten wildlife.
Then came Ammon Bundy and a group of armed militants. On January 2, they seized the refuge headquarters at Burns, Oregon, to protest the sentences of two ranchers who were convicted of arson on public property in an attempt to hide their poaching activities. But Bundy and his sycophants have a higher calling:
We warn federal agencies, federal judges and all government officials that follow federal oppressive examples that the people are in unrest because of these types of actions.
Bundy obviously likes – or doesn’t like – the word “federal.” He’s also used the word “Constitution” a number of times. But it’s unclear to what part of the Constitution he’s referring to at any given moment.
Bundy is the son of 67-year-old Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who made news in 2014 when he took up arms against the U.S. government over $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy Sr. became a hero to conservatives who are opposed to what they perceive as federal overreach (though, like frightened rabbits, many quickly scurried after he made a remark that “the Negro” may have been “better off as slaves, picking cotton…”).
Ammon Bundy is a Mormon, and occasionally invokes his religion to defend his militant actions: “I ask you now to come participate in this wonderful thing in Harney County that the Lord is about to accomplish.”
If the Lord is supposed to accomplish “this wonderful thing,” why do Bundy and his bunch feel the need to wrap themselves in artillery? Bundy’s Lord evidently approves of armed insurrection.
The Bundy occupation began three weeks ago and is ongoing. The initial protesters have been joined by other militant groups who are drawn to the spectacle like wolves tearing into red meat. The FBI has been reluctant to use force on the several dozen still remaining because it understandably doesn’t want outright violence, like that which occurred at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993). But Oregon Governor Kate Brown, after initially keeping mum at the FBI’s behest, finally went public with a plea for an end to the occupation:
“The very fabric of the Burns community is being ripped apart by this occupation…the situation is absolutely intolerable.” Brown also plans to demand that feds reimburse the state of Oregon for the costs being incurred, which currently hover around a half million dollars.
The fact that the occupiers – and let’s be honest, they are domestic terrorists – have been allowed to come and go as they please, including making uninvited and unconcealed-carry appearances at a town meeting at the high school gymnasium… well, it’s surreal to the point of nausea. Kind of like “Twin Peaks” meets “A Clockwork Orange.”
The confrontation in Oregon is an example of right-wing extremism gone awry. Angry, under-educated white males who are caught in the crevasses of a changing American demographic and its values, and who stubbornly cling to a warped idea of what constitutes “individual freedom” and invoke the Constitution (and sometimes God) to defend their often violent actions.
At its ugliest, it’s Timothy McVeigh. At its more genteel, it’s opportunistic politicians like Matt Shea (R-Wash), who sympathize with the militants and, over objections from local officials, actually meet with them.
Maybe we should just turn Harney Basin back over to the people who knew best how to manage it, and who did so for thousands of years without either wrecking the environment or once uttering the word “Constitution”: the Paiute Indians.
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