Why Ammon Bundy’s Oregon standoff is doomed to fail

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Ammon Bundy addresses the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 5, 2016. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

If you want to understand why the armed men who seized the empty headquarters of Oregon’s remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday are doomed to fail — despite vowing to hunker down for “as long as it takes” to defeat the “tyranny” of Washington, D.C., and threatening “to kill or be killed” if necessary — then you have to understand a few other things first. Things like grazing fees, desert tortoises and the property clause of the United States Constitution.

In short, you have to understand the larger war for control of the American West.

On one side of the Oregon flare-up is the federal government, which owns surprisingly vast swaths of the western half of the country, ranging from 29.9 percent of Montana to 84.5 percent of Nevada, and just over half, 53.1 percent, of Oregon.

On the other side are a bunch of antigovernment types who think that Uncle Sam shouldn’t own this much land, and who, for both economic and ideological reasons, would rather the more laissez-faire states owned it instead.

“Once [the people] can use these lands as free men, then we will have accomplished what we came to accomplish,” Bundy told reporters over the weekend.

SLIDESHOW – Armed militia standoff in Oregon >>>

The basic battle lines here aren’t new. Westerners have always seen themselves as rugged individualists, and the current clash has its roots in a law that Congress passed during Civil War.

But what has changed in recent years is that these Westerners are now willing to use confrontational, even violent, tactics to get their point across — a decision that is almost certain to undermine the larger cause to which they profess their allegiance.

Most of the blame belongs to a single family: the Bundys.

Ammon Bundy, 40, is the ringleader of the posse now occupying the Malheur refuge center; his brother Ryan and another Bundy brother are also reportedly among the occupiers. Last week, Ammon Bundy traveled 1,000 miles north from his home in Phoenix to attend a rally in Burns, Ore., ostensibly in support of Dwight Hammond Jr., 74, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, a pair of local ranchers who were convicted three years ago of burning federal lands in a dispute with the government over grazing rights for their cattle, then ordered in October to return to prison after a federal judge ruled that their original sentences were too short.

As soon as the rally ended, however, the Bundys and at least a dozen like-minded outsiders they had summoned to Burns — including Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine from Phoenix whose anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities triggered an FBI manhunt in November 2015, and other gun-toting vigilantes who travel around the country latching onto various local fights against the federal government — split off and took over a couple of unstaffed Malheur administrative buildings.

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Protesters gather at the Bureau of Land Management’s base camp near Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nev., ranch on April 12, 2014. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Such is the Bundy way. In April 2014, Ammon’s father, Cliven, 68, led an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the Bundy family ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., that involved more than 100 antigovernment militiamen and came very close to erupting into the next Waco or Ruby Ridge. “If a car had backfired,” one militiaman told Harper’s, “the shooting would have started.”

Cliven Bundy’s beef with the BLM was longstanding — and specific to his own circumstances. You can read the whole two-decade timeline here. The short version is that in 1993 the BLM modified Bundy’s grazing permit to reduce the overgrazing of Nevada’s Gold Butte, citing the damage his cows were causing to the habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. (The federal government has owned the land where Bundy’s cows graze since before Nevada became a state.)

In response, Bundy “refused the permit modification, quit paying his fees, and, in an act of pique, turned out more than 900 animals onto the allotment — almost nine times the number stipulated by his permit,” according to Harper’s. Several times the BLM ordered Bundy to remove his cows; several times Bundy refused; several times the courts ruled in the feds’ favor. Eventually, after the defiant Bundy had racked up more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fines and fees, insisting all along that the land rightfully belonged to “the sovereign state of Nevada,” the BLM began to impound his herd. Hence the standoff — which only ended when the BLM backed down and agreed to return Bundy’s cows.

“I abide by all of Nevada state laws,” Bundy said at the time. “But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

Bundy’s issues with Washington, D.C., may have been personal. But they were also symptomatic of a larger Western war that has waxed and waned throughout the 20th century.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, Congress sought to spur settlement on the Western territories it had acquired over the previous half-century by passing various Homestead Acts; in general, these laws decreed that if a U.S. citizen were willing to settle on and farm a particular patch of land for at least five years, he could claim it as his own. To earn a profit, ranchers in some regions needed more room than the 160 acres typically allotted by Congress. They eventually began to pay grazing fees for the right to lease federal land — if they agreed to federal oversight.

The relationship between these ranchers and the federal government wasn’t always a smooth one. In 1905, Western stockmen revolted against the Forest Service for implementing grazing fees and a permit system; in the 1940s and ’50s, an increase in livestock fees sparked a similar backlash.

And yet much of this (largely inhospitable) public land still hadn’t been claimed. In 1932, Pres. Herbert Hoover proposed to deed the surface rights to the unappropriated lands to the states, but the states complained that the lands had been overgrazed and would burden their budgets, which had been squeezed by the Great Depression. The BLM was soon created to administer the public lands that no one else wanted.

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Rancher Cliven Bundy talks to protesters in Bunkerville, Nev., on April 11, 2014. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Such was the state of affairs until 1976. That was the year Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which formally ended the policy of turning over federally owned land to citizens who wanted to farm or ranch there — essentially locking in federal control.

Realizing that Washington could now enact whatever conservation measures it liked, some Westerners balked — and Western politicians began to listen. The result was what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, at least six Western states passed legislation aimed at nullifying federal ownership of land within their boundaries; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch proposed a bill that would allow states to apply for control over selected parcels; and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, then running for president, told supporters in Salt Lake City, “Count me in as a rebel.”

Even so, the rebellion sputtered after Reagan took office — just like the similar rebellions before it. The reasons were complex: opposition from conservationists, Reagan’s push for privatization, the fact that federal grazing fees are actually a great deal for ranchers like Cliven Bundy — not to mention the Property Clause of the Constitution, which clearly gives Congress the authority to manage public lands however it wants.

In the Obama Era, however, Republican lawmakers — with the backing of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit that drives conservative policy and whose members include Koch Industries and ExxonMobil — have begun to reintroduce land-transfer bills in statehouses across the West. Last year alone, conservatives in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming put forward legislation that laid the groundwork for transfers of public land to the states.

Their goal is simple: to channel the anti-Washington passions of the tea party into laws that will open up greater stretches of the West to mining, drilling, ranching and other economic activities, generating tax revenue for the states, and, of course, profits for the companies and individuals involved. (Otherwise, the states simply couldn’t afford to manage so much land.)

The problem for conservative lawmakers is that such passions, once unleashed, are very difficult to control. When Cliven Bundy and his acolytes first aimed their rifles at the BLM, many Republican politicians, eager to appeal to voters angry with Washington, stood by him.

Ted Cruz, for instance, described the situation in Bunkerville as “the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on.” Rand Paul told Fox News that “there is a legitimate constitutional question here” and later reportedly met with Bundy for 45 minutes to discuss federal land management and states’ rights.

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A bumper sticker on a private truck parked in front of a residential building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Since the standoff, however, Cliven Bundy has wondered aloud whether “Negroes” were “better off as slaves, picking cotton” and aligned himself with the most paranoid of right-wing extremists. In June 2014, two of his self-professed followers went on a shooting spree in Las Vegas, murdering a pair of police officers before killing themselves.

So now, as another Bundy defies the feds in Oregon, Paul and Cruz seem to be singing a different tune. On Monday, Cruz called on Ammon Bundy and his gang to “stand down peacefully”; Paul made a plea for political action instead.

“I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics,” Paul told the Washington Post in an interview. “That’s why I entered the electoral arena. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy.”

And that’s why the Bundys’ ongoing crusade may ultimately prove to be counterproductive. The more militant this latest incarnation of the Sagebrush Rebellion starts to seem, the less inclined mainstream politicians — not to mention the people of the American West — will be to support it.

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