Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Good Strategy Routs Militia Loonies

Yesterday was a good day for the good guys in the West--the men and women who care for our public lands and the many users of the lands who follow the rules and support good management.  Federal and Oregon State law enforcement officers arrested the leaders of a motley group of anti-government loonies who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2.

Brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, both occupation ringleaders, and a handful of supporters were taken into custody as they traveled outside the refuge. Reports say Ryan Bundy and LaVoy Finicum resisted arrest and gunfire ensued. Bundy was injured and Finicum was killed.

It is unfortunate any violence occurred. Law enforcement personnel went out of their way to avoid bloodshed. They set up headquarters some 30 miles from the refuge, communicated often with the occupiers, and allowed free movement into and out of the compound for more than three weeks. In fact, the lack of a frontal assault or even  a show of force caused considerable criticism, including scathing comments by the Governor of Oregon about what was seen as a failure of federal agents to take immediate aggressive action against the occupiers.

The Bundys got no sympathy in Portland (Britt Anderson photo/ The Oregonian).
I admit to some concern that the feds were going to let the criminals get away with their actions as the days passed, but with positive results appearing it seems fair to say the law enforcement strategy has been excellent. I reached that conclusion after spending some time reading about the history of anti-government groups in the U.S., especially the various "militias," and reviewing a few cases of previous standoffs in the West.

Our nation began with revolt against what was perceived as government tyranny, although that belief was far from universal within the colonies. From the early days, Americans have prized individual liberty and personal and property rights. Criticism of government officials and actions is a cherished and legally protected right. It thus is not surprising that various anti-government groups sprang up. Some were tax protesters, some sought to impose their religion on others, some professed a need for self protection with arms. Most have come to be referred to under the umbrella term "militias."

Government responses to the militias have ranged from ignoring them to attacking their strongholds with brute force. In the 1990s, two incidents caused rising public sentiment that the forceful approach had gone too far.

In 1991 at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho federal officials surrounded the family of Randy Weaver, a white supremist. The agents attacked and when the firing stopped a deputy U.S. marshal, and Weaver's wife and son were dead. A task force investigated the police actions, and its report called for reforms in federal law enforcement.

A year later a band of religious extremists accused of weapons violations was surrounded at the Branch Dividian Compound near Waco, Texas. Four federal officers and 82 civilians were killed when agents stormed the compound and fires in the buildings followed a gun battle. The events caused considerable public outrage over what was seen as a heavy-handed government response to a rather non-threatening situation.

It appears anti-government feelings about the two incidents combined to motivate two terrorists to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later. The death toll was 168 and nearly 700 others were injured in the tragedy. If the linkage between the three events is valid, changes in the federal approach to militia criminality obviously were needed.

Militia membership, primarily in the Midwest and West, increased after Ruby Ridge and Waco. But federal and state law enforcers avoided actions against groups of malcontents. Instead, they identified and arrested many individual militia leaders and members when they could prove criminal charges. Militia membership and activity went into a steady decline.

In the West, "Sagebrush Rebellion" leaders advocated views similar to the Bundys'--turn over ownership and management of public lands to local or state authorities with little or no regulation of grazing, mining, or timber cutting. In the extreme, the idea was to put the lands in private ownership.

When I was the Public Information Officer for the Boise National Forest in the 1970s, the "rebellion" was picking up steam.  Later, there were many documented cases of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees, and sometimes their families, being harassed. Those favoring disposal of the public lands made increasing noise, but no changes in ownership resulted.

I left the West for four years, and when I returned to the Intermountain Region in 1981 there was little enthusiasm for the "rebellion." But the seeds of it remained, and it flowered last year when rancher Cliven Bundy invited militia members from across the land to help him resist efforts by the Bureau of Land Management to force him to honor provisions of his grazing permit. Hundreds of armed militia members and sympathizers showed up to back Bundy, and federal agents backed down and left the area.

That perhaps emboldened Bundy's sons to attempt the Malheur seizure of federal property. They appealed widely for public support and got very little. This time law enforcement people were prepared. Their leniency in allowing the occupiers to travel freely set up an opportune time to arrest the leaders. A few hours later, the entrances and exits to the refuge were blocked, and remaining occupiers were asked to surrender. They did not comply immediately, but now they can have lots of time alone to think about it. And if they refuse, the feds can merely arrest them one-at-a-time as the opportunity arises.

The public lands belong to all of us and preservation and use should be directed by law and science-based regulation. Our law enforcement people have done a good job responding to the latest group of criminal loonies who think otherwise.

Let's hope Cliven Bundy is having unpleasant days looking over his shoulder whenever he travels away from his ranch. His next stop might be a jail cell. And it should be.


Kay said...

I'm glad it all ended, but sorry for the loss of life. Still, the public lands belong to all of us and needs to be managed carefully. My husband worked for the U.S.E.P.A. with offices in the federal building in Chicago. After Oklahoma, I worried for his safety with gun and bomb mad anti-government people out there.

Mike said...

We lived in Arco, a small high desert town in Idaho, for several years. Most of the land nearby was federal. My perception was, and remains, that those who utilize public lands for grazing, logging, etc. pay far less for using the land than they would if it were private land.

I agree with your assessment that these people who took over Malheur are "a motley group of anti-government loonies."

My great-uncle Martin was a rancher in the sandhills of western Nebraska. He was a leader in land use conservation before "environmentalism was a thing" and a leader in the Nebraska Cattlemans Association. The sandhills are great grazing land, but very poor farmland. He developed strategies to restore parts of his property that had been previously used in failed attempts at farming. He worked closely with reps of the natural resources district and the Soil Conservation Service and was a long-time active member of the Society for Range Management. He was considered by many to be the area's father of range management and received numerous awards. He believed that concern and responsible action is necessary if any producer plans for long-term survival.

The people involved in the Malheur seizure of federal property seem to be the opposite kind of rancher.

I applaud the tactic used by law enforcement in this case. It's unfortunate that one person died. However, as I understand it, he had vowed to never be locked up in a "concrete box."

Tom Sightings said...

I hadn't really followed this, so thanks for the update. So ... why do these things only happen in the West?

Anonymous said...

Happy to have them evicted.

Jhawk23 said...

Good, thoughtful piece. Agree, the Feds got the response about right this time, both the degree and the timing. I personally would not have been sad to see a more forceful and earlier action, but realize there are those who would have.

The mutineers would have done well to consider the name of the place they chose to occupy: In French, "malheur" is "misfortune," or even "calamity."

Dick Klade said...

Tom . . . Not all happen in the west. Several "militia groups" have made much noise here in Michigan in recent years, and in one case federal officers thwarted one of their plots that involved extreme violence. "Militia" groups also are known to be strong in the South. However, it is fair to say that most of the more visible anti-government activities have been in the West, probably because millions of acres there are public lands, unlike in the East. Also, I think, the elements of the old western mentality--individualism and great value placed on individual rights--remain strong in many areas, especially in the interior West.

joared said...

Appreciate reading more of the specifics involving this Malheur standoff. I wasn't familiar with all the issues but had gathered enough information to question the matter based on what was reported about the individuals involved. The merits of their protest were questionable in my mind and now seem quite unwarranted.

Dick Klade said...

Cliven Bundy left his home yesterday and traveled to Portland, where the FBI arrested him. Hooray.

Dick Klade said...

The last four armed occupiers surrendered soon after Cliven Bundy's arrest. Hooray, hooray!