Last weekend, after a rally in support of convicted arsonists, Dwight Hammond, and his son, Steve Hammond, a group of armed men occupied the headquarters of the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, in protest over the heavy hand of the federal government in administering federal lands to the detriment of adjacent landowners. The group led by Ammon Bundy – son of Nevada rancher, Clive Bundy –has stated that the protests and occupation are, in part, to “stand up” for the Hammonds since they will not stand for themselves. The Hammonds have not participated in the takeover and have, in fact, stated that the occupiers, led by Mr. Bundy, do not speak for them.
The Hammonds were convicted of burning federal lands upon which they held grazing rights. Various versions of why they set the fires run all the way from covering up poaching of deer to clearing invasive species on the land. It doesn’t really matter. The Hammonds were convicted and given relatively light prison sentences which they served. The federal government, demonstrating its “heavy hand” for those who disagree, appealed those sentences and now the Hammonds are set to begin additional prison terms under a harsher mandatory five year sentence. They voluntarily surrendered to begin those sentences on Monday.
The background of the parties are interesting and the protests over the heavy hand of the federal government and the degrees to which it will go in order to deny the continuation of the historic uses of federal lands are worth a doctoral dissertation. But mostly this boils down to an increasing “preservationist” attitude by government bureaucrats (most of whom have never visited Oregon or for that matter any of the big square “fly over” states) who believe that using federal lands in endeavors that may result in profits are simply malum prohibitum – grazing, growing, mining, drilling, etc.
But let’s leave aside the validity of the arguments raised by those whose livelihoods are now threatened by that “preservationist” philosophy. Let’s leave aside the fact that over ninety-five percent of the land in Oregon remains unoccupied by man and there is zero threat of denigration of that land. Let’s leave aside the fact that the use of the federal lands in those areas has remained virtually unchanged for decades and generations of ranching families and that the denial of the historic use of those lands by adjacent ranching families serves no legitimate purpose other than to deny access to those ranching families.
Still, this is an extraordinarily dangerous situation. On one side you have a group of people whose view of the federal government harkens back to the days of the Wild West and who view the government – not without some reason – as the primary enemy to their futures. Between taxes, regulations and arbitrary enforcement, these people feel smothered by a government grown too big, too involved in their lives and businesses and too unresponsive to their concerns. They are also armed. Time will tell whether they treat that fact with the respect that most of us who were raised in the rural West have for those arms.
On the other side you have a federal government. Its current leader has been critical of the very people who are protesting in Burns. President Barack Obama stated in August of 2008 during his presidential campaign:
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
And that is the attitude that permeates his administration. And it is an attitude that makes the involvement of the federal government in this “stand off” dangerously explosive. The very cause of the great frustration of Western landowners stands with all the might and overwhelming power of the government which, for many, equates to the reason for the government’s indifference toward their plight. They have lost after every turn. The might of the government has not been wielded fairly, although it appears to have been wielded lawfully. Further repression by the federal government will only heighten the feelings of betrayal by an administration that never listens but always demands.
Add to that the propensity of the Obama administration to change the narrative about international terrorism to domestic terrorism – especially “terrorism” that encompasses people they consider to be “right wing extremists” and an escalation of the situation in Malhuer County becomes, for them, a demonstrable incident and more succor for their gun control agenda.
“Where there is great power there is great responsibility, where there is less power there is less responsibility, and where there is no power there can, I think, be no responsibility.” Winston Churchill (circa 1906).
Determination of the course of this standoff lies primarily with the federal government. Let’s be sure we understand the physical environment of this confrontation. Ammon Bundy and a group of approximately twenty-four others invaded and seized control of a building that houses the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge administrative office. The whole area is easily isolated and control of entry and exit (meaning food and supplies) can be accomplished with a minimum number of law enforcement officials. It is the middle of the winter. Utility access (heat, electricity, water, landline communications and cellular communications) can all be controlled externally. There were no workers in the building when Bundy and his supporters occupied the building so there are no hostages. All of the business conducted at the wildlife refuge can be conducted remotely. In other words there is no critical rationale for retaking the building.
This is a situation that begs for the primacy of local government in its resolution. The best solution would be for Mr. Bundy and his supporters to acknowledge that this has nothing to do with the Hammonds and that what is occurring in Malhuer County is really none of their business. They should leave and take up their cause back in Nevada where they are being directly impacted by the arbitrariness of the federal government. Failing that, the federal government should cede control of the situation to Malhuer County Sheriff Brian Wolfe. I don’t know Mr. Wolfe but his sense of what is required in this situation has to be far superior to that of the federal government. At the very least he does not have an alternative agenda regarding terrorism and gun control.