“I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel.”
Ronald Reagan, 1980
They call themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and they probably thought that they were lighting the match that would spread a fire of anti-government revolt across the American west when they occupied the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge at the beginning of this year. Instead, they’ve spent weeks hunkered down in the freezing cold Oregon winter, sending pleas over social media for snacks and other necessities.
As it stands, we don’t know whether the heavily armed occupiers will face any legal consequences for their actions (although one, aged 62, was recently arrested for using a US Fish and Wildlife vehicle to go shopping for groceries). These include ripping down fences to allow cattle to graze on land set aside for the pleasure of bird watchers and hikers.
The county puts the cost for local taxpayers at $60,000 to $70,000 a day, including increased security for residents of the area and the closure of local schools throughout the occupation. The same report puts the cost to federal taxpayers at just under $120,000 per week.
Some have called for federal police to meet the occupiers with force but similar situations in the past have shown that this kind of reaction almost always ends in tragedy. The people at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas may have been unhinged but their children (23 of them) certainly didn’t deserve to be burned alive any more than Tamir Rice deserved to be gunned down for playing in a park with a toy gun. While it can sometimes seem like police tactics are beyond reform, the subsequent standoff with the Montana Freemen militia in 1996 ended peacefully, proving that this doesn’t have to be the case.
The Hammonds and the Bundys
The occupation began on January 2nd when the would be insurgents descended on the Refuge after a peaceful rally in the nearby town of Burns. The initial protest was over the return of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond to federal prison on arson charges. Dwight, the elder Hammond, has played a role in what supporters call the “Wise Use” movement since at least the 1980s repeatedly threatening federal officials with violence in disputes over grazing rights for his cattle.
Supporters of the two men, including many of their neighbors, complain that they’ve been punished too harshly for fires they set that damaged federal lands. Both had already served time but they were sent back to prison when an appeal by the prosecutor led a higher court to impose the mandatory minimum of five years on both. The first fire was apparently set to cover up poaching on federal land and the second, which endangered firemen fighting nearby brush fires, was meant to protect their property from the wild-fires that plague the region each summer.
Bolstering the Hammonds’ case, the name of the 1996 law that they were prosecuted under is ridiculously Orwellian: the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Still, 5 years for arson that risked lives seems less unreasonable when looking at the vast numbers of Americans who get much longer sentences for nonviolent drug crimes
Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the Malheur occupation, is the son of Cliven Bundy who became famous in 2014 for standing down Bureau of Land Management (BLM) authorities in southeastern Nevada. His victory, backed up by similarly armed militia, inspired a small resurgence in the Wise Use and, even more, radical County Rights movements. Just as he was being lionized by the right wing press he committed suicide by media, wondering aloud if African Americans weren’t “better off” under slavery.
The younger Bundy and his followers say they are fighting for the US Constitution, a noble goal in its way, although tarnished by the prejudice shown by some members of the group. It’s more likely they are earnest dupes, pushing an agenda that will only make them and their lifestyle even less relevant over time
Who Really Profits?
The most likely winners if the ranchers and their militia allies get their way and the federal lands are returned to the states are oil, timber and other extractive industries. Little mentioned in the reporting on all of this is the fact that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has already had their model legislation regarding the return of public lands passed in seven states, igniting what will most likely be costly legal battles that may see some of them sold to the highest bidder.
The ranchers, who already benefit from the low cost of grazing on most federal lands, seem to believe that these areas will simply be handed over to them if they revert to the states. They are also very selective in terms of their reading of the history that led to their current struggle against federal ownership of western lands and the powerful corporate forces like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity (both funded by the Koch brothers, Exxon and others) that are helping to shape it.
Most of the public land that remains in the United States is in western states like Nevada, which has the largest amount, accounting for more than 80% of its total area (in Oregon it is just over 50%). Although originally set aside for homesteading in the 19th century (after the previous indigenous residents had been removed) most of these lands were desert or sagebrush and weren’t sustainable for such farming over the long term.
As a result, the federal government eventually held millions of acres across several states with no one to claim them. In 1932, President Hoover actually tried to turn most of this land over but his offer was rejected, with state authorities claiming that most of it was already over-grazed and that it would be an additional burden to absorb any potential costs from the transfers with the Great Depression in full swing.
Disputes with ranchers, miners and others continued on and off until 1976 when passage of Federal Land Policy and Management Act led to what came to be called the Sagebrush Rebellion. When Ronald Reagan, who declared his sympathy for the movement on the campaign trail, was elected President in 1980, the ranchers and their allies believed they had won the fight and the federal lands would soon be transferred to the states.
Upon taking office however, Reagan’s staff, including his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, were unable to move forward in selling off some the land to pay down the federal deficit. As Ron Arnold, who wrote a biography of the former Secretary of the Interior explains, “…Watt and the others discovered that you can’t sell off what you don’t own. If you try to auction off pieces of ‘public’ property, you can’t do it because ownership is split. There are so many stratifications you could never figure out who really owned what. So notions of ownership looked more and more like commons than a capital asset.”
One of the strongest arguments for keeping these lands in federal hands is economic and shows the hypocrisy of ALEC and its funders. According to a 2013 estimate, the Department of the Interior, responsible for overseeing the US’s public lands, “contributed $360 billion to the U.S. economy, supporting over 2 million jobs across the country.” Many of these jobs are in economically depressed rural areas where the majority of these federal lands are located.
The funny thing about the Malheur occupiers is that while most describe themselves as limited government conservatives they are essentially demanding welfare for their cattle. At the same time, with a few outliers, they ignore the plight of minority communities often denied the right to life and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness, that their beloved Constitution is supposed to guarantee to all.
Since this document created a nation of laws that came to be admired and emulated throughout the world, these wannabe cowboys who so often invoke it should be willing to face the consequences of their actions and make their arguments in the courts. Federal lands are pretty much all that is left of the commons in most western countries and their continued protection benefits all citizens. The truth is that corporate interests, supported by groups like ALEC, are far more dangerous than “Americans for Constitutional Freedom” could ever hope to be.