The occupation of a federal wildlife preserve in Eastern Oregon is not Ruby Ridge, and it is not the mess at the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas. It is an armed attempt to steal your land.
On Tuesday afternoon this week, on a road between Burns and John Day, the FBI and Oregon State Police arrested six of the people holed up at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, including gang leader Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy. Another militant — unnamed by the FBI but confirmed by his family to be Robert "LaVoy" Finicum — was reportedly killed by gunfire during the traffic stop arrest. While a handful of other occupiers were arrested or turned themselves in, the standoff isn't over. A number of militants are still reportedly entrenched in the refuge.
It would have been better for everyone if the leaders of the Malheur militia had been arrested without bloodshed. Sadly, that's not how it went down. Finicum "would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved," said daughter Arianna Finicum Brown, 26, one of the late Arizona rancher's 11 children.
Freedom is an interesting concept to invoke here. What the Malheur militia was doing, not to put too fine a point on it, was trying to force the government to shift publicly held land — the people's land — into private hands, the hands of ranchers like themselves, and mining and energy companies.
They did not generally describe their project in those terms. Bundy and his fellow scofflaws tended to fashion themselves as reclaiming the land for "the people." Oregon is about 52 percent public lands, managed by the federal government. The militants demanded that all of that land be ceded to state and local governments. They renamed the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a birding wonderland set aside for the public under President Theodore Roosevelt, the "Harney County Resource Center."
Still, if you listened just a little bit carefully, the goal was pretty explicit.
"We are very strong, very firm, this facility will not go back to the federal government, ever," LaVoy Finicum said at one point during the four-week-long occupation. In the first few days of the armed occupation, Ammon Bundy laid it out: "It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching."
That's a crucial point that the more genteel faces of Bundyism are wary of making — even if they believe it.
The key player on the legal side of the opposition to federal land ownership is a group called the American Lands Council, headed by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R) and financed through individual donations, dues paid by county governments, and backing from Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group bankrolled by Charles and David Koch. The ALC pushes for returning federal lands to state control, and it is decidedly vague on what should happen to those lands after the state takes over the expensive task of land management.
Oregon state Rep. Carl Wilson (R), leading the battle in the Oregon legislature, has proposed at least studying "the costs of a federal land transfer to require the state to sell transferred lands into private ownership," OPB reports. Cliff Gardner, a 77-year-old Nevada rancher who spoke to Harney County residents about federal land transfers on Jan. 6, told the local ranchers that "eventually, these lands will be run by private companies.... That privatization will happen, but that's not the important part."
Actually, that is the important part.
"It is frustrating when I hear the demand that we return the land to the people, because it is in the people's hand — the people own it," said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, a central villain in the Bundy anti-government narrative. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages Malheur.) "Everybody in the United States owns that land... We manage it the best we can for its owners, the people, and whether it's for recreating, for grazing, for energy and mineral development."
There are, of course, real complexities to the issue of ownership and management of Western lands. Eastern Oregon's economy has been struggling for decades, due in large part to a decline in logging. Now, 40 percent of the residents of Harney County — 7,100 acres spread out over an area the size of Massachusetts — work for the federal government. Maybe the government should sell of some of the land it owns. But once that land is sold, it isn't public anymore, it isn't yours.
That's an issue that will be hashed out regardless of how the standoff outside Burns ends. But when the Bundys and their supporters throw around big words like freedom and fealty to the sacred U.S. Constitution, remember that what they're really talking about is land, and they aren't disinterested parties.
A lot of the West is your land. It probably won't be if they have their way.