Long before Oregon militia standoff, Western ranchers chafed at federal land rules

Militia members guard the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Oregon
(Image credit: ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images)

The armed men who have seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, aren't fighting a local fight. Most residents of the area are reportedly angry and worried about the occupation, which, among other things, has delayed the start of school for at least a week. The two ranchers the mostly out-of-state occupiers purport to be standing up for, Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven, distanced themselves from the militants and plan to report to prison on Monday, as ordered by a federal judge.

Even Cliven Bundy, the anti-government Nevada rancher whose sons are leading the occupation, said he's not sure about his sons meddling in local affairs. "I think of it this way," he told Oregon Public Broadcasting: "What business does the Bundy family have in Harney County, Oregon?"

But while Harney County, in Eastern Oregon, doesn't support the Bundy militia's tactics or its anti–federal government fervor — about half of the county works for the Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies — lots of the ranchers in the area are frustrated with federal control of much of the land in the area, as this map from The Oregonian's Mark Graves shows (purple is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, orange by the BLM, and blue is private land):

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And as NPR explains, the conflict between Western ranchers and the federal government dates back about 150 years, to the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres to settlers who agreed to make those parcels their home. Unlike the South and Midwest, ranchers in the arid West couldn't profitably support a herd of cattle on 160 acres, so they started leasing land from the federal government, putting much of their livelihood under federal rules. You can learn more about the seeds of the Oregon conflict in this NPR segment about the 2014 standoff between the BLM and Cliven Bundy. Peter Weber

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