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What Are Armed Militiamen Really Doing in That Oregon Wildlife Refuge?

The Bundy Revolution doesn't seem to be catching on.

by Mike Pearl
Jan 6 2016, 6:30pm

Ammon Bundy.

As you may have heard, earlier this week an armed militia group occupied a building on a federal wildlife preserve near Burns, Oregon. They were initially there in support of a local rancher and his son who ran afoul of the government after setting fire to roughly 140 acres of federal land, and now face some tough prison sentences. Included in the militia are relatives of another federal-government-hating rancher named Cliven Bundy.

By Tuesday night, the Oath Keepers, a militia group not linked to the occupation, were warning anyone with children to stay away from the wildlife reserve. The occupiers, meanwhile, were alternately announcing to the press that they'd leave when there was a plan in place to hand the federally owned land, known as the Malheur Wildlife Reserve, over to the local community, and boasting that there were federal warrants out for their arrests—and that they'd be waiting, armed, when federal agents arrived.

So what the hell is going on?

In the days leading up to the standoff, it appeared that the plan might have been to keep the federal government from hauling the local ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, off to prison. The Hammonds were caught in a judicial clusterfuck involving minimum sentencing and the War on Terror, and the Bundys weren't happy to hear that they'd be doing five years of hard time for lighting fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006, in what the government claims was arson.

In November, the Bundys wrote on their family blog that "the incarceration of the Hammond family will spawn serious civil unrest." The militiamen's occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which appears to include at least three of Cliven's sons, is apparently the family's way of making good on that threat. The occupation echoes the standoff at the Bundys' own ranch in April of 2014, when armed militias faced off against agents with the Bureau of Land Management, the culmination of two-decade legal spat over Cliven's unpaid grazing fees.

Unlike Bundy, the Hammonds are now in prison. To the dismay of militia groups like the Oath Keepers, the father and son turned down the generous offer to have armed insurgents protect them from the government's attempts to drag them to jail, and showed up Monday at a federal penitentiary in Southern California. Although they apparently were in contact with the Bundys before this week's events, the Hammonds have now made it clear they're not interested in the occupation of any wildlife refuge. So this isn't really about the Bundys keeping their kindred scofflaws out of the pen.

As in the Bundy Ranch standoff, the militiamen's main issue, at least nominally, seems to be land ownership, and specifically, the fact that the federal government owns the majority of the land in eleven western states, which is, to be fair, a shit ton of land. This fact is particularly irksome to ranchers like the Hammonds and the Bundys, who need lots of open space to graze livestock, and tend to take issue with the federal government using the land for things like, say, wildlife protection.

While lots of people in the West take issue with the feds controlling local natural resources, the Bundys and their allies take this view much further. Basically, Cliven—and presumably the Bundy sons that are now freezing their asses off in Oregon—think the federal government unlawfully seized the land from the state, and thatArticle 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the US Constitution says the feds can't legally own all those huge tracts of land anyway.

This, of course, is why Bundy lets his cows graze on federal land that is technically reserved for a species of tortoise, while also refusing to pay the $1.2 million in grazing fees he owes the government because he doesn't believe the fees are valid. The 2014 standoff was sparked when BLM agents started seizing Bundy's cattle, but when the family and their militiamen advanced on the federal agents with firearms, the cattle were promptly surrendered. No blood was shed, and the Bundys can make a credible case that they won.

That victory no doubt bolstered the Bundys' feeling of moral certainty about their particularly screwy interpretation of the Constitution. Now with the Oregon occupation, his sons are apparently taking a victory lap.

The occupiers, who call themselves theCitizens for Constitutional Freedom, include other militia members who are not members of the Bundy family. But at this point, wedon't know very much about the non-Bundy members in its ranks, or even how many of them there actually are. According to Ammon Bundy's own headcount, there are about 150 people in the wildlife refuge, although more reliable estimates say it's more like 15 to 25.

Known sovereign state groups like the III Percenters, the Oath Keepers—who participated in the Bundy Ranch standoff—and the assorted West Coast militias operating under the aegis of the "Pacific Patriot Network" are beginning to distance themselves from the Malheur antics. One III Percentertold Reuters that Ammon Bundy "believes he's on a mission from God," and that to the Bundys, "what the Hammonds want and what the community wants is immaterial."

In addition to Ammon Bundy, the de facto leader, another high-ranking occupier is Ammon's brother Ryan. An Army veteran named Ryan Payne is another apparent ringleader of the group, and told The New York Times that he will occupy the refuge "for as long as it takes." An occupier named John Ritzheimer has participated in anti-Muslim rallies, according to the Los Angeles Times, and tried to recruit people to Oregon in a YouTube video, saying ,"We need real men here." Then there's the mysterious figure known only as "Captain Moroni"—a reference to the Book of Mormon—who says he's "willing to die here." A rancher from Arizona with the outrageous name of LaVoy Finicum says there are tons of occupiers, but they were hiding when reporters looked around.

Another occupier named Michael Stettler told The Washington Post that the group was mostly couch potatoes fielding phone calls from the media and watching Fox News, and that if push came to shove, "most of them couldn't even run a mile."

From time to time, people do show up and join the occupation, but firsthand accounts say their arrivals are disorganized and awkward.

Ammon Bundy tried to win over the community of Burns, at a news conference on Sunday."This refuge here is rightfully owned by the people and we intend to use it," he said. He went on to say that he wanted the newly liberated land to be "a unified body of people that understand the principles of the Constitution."

Despite the tantalizing promise of countless acres of federal land, the people of Burns, Oregon, population 3,000,hardly seem thrilled about the occupation. And the militiamen haven't been great at outreach so far. In one baffling incident, they showed up at a yard sale and got into a shouting match with the elderly mother of the local sheriff, and then later marched into the sheriff's office to tattle on her for threatening them.

Even the members of the community sympathetic to the militia's opposition to federal land ownership seem to doubt Ammon Bundy's competence, and the wisdom of seizing a federal building. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward has asked them to go home and be with their families, which must have stung, because county sheriffs are some of the only authority figures the Bundys respect.

But while their tactics might be questionable, and their approach disorganized, their basic argument against federal land management speaks to a broader movement that has been gaining steam in the West in recent years. The Bundys have attended rowdy anti-BLM events, and they haven't all been spontaneous, grassroots rallies. At least one was organized by Phil Lyman, a Utah county commissioner known for his anti-BLM activities.

Lyman is not the only member of a government agency who would like to see federal land handed over to the states. In Utah, for instance, state legislators are fighting hard to seize land back from the feds. Legislators in Idaho and Nevada have made similar attempts. These efforts have been criticized by environmentalists as land grabs, but to date, none of these state pols has gone all Dog Day Afternoon on a wildlife preserve.

Publications like InfoWars and Zero Hedge—the ones often lumped into the "conspiracy" category—are, of course, watching the events in Oregon closely, and as outlets that reliably post material critical of federal land rights, exploring their take on events can be illuminating. A blog post by Zero Hedge's Tyler Durden called the Oregon Occupation "a terrible plan that we might be stuck with," and games out what might happen if the feds try to take out the occupiers. The answer, it seems, is that it would be inauspicious start to a nonetheless necessary revolution.

"If the Feds use brutality to handle the Oregon conflict, it will indeed 'kick-off.' There wont be any way to stop it," Durden writes. "Just don't get too excited, folks. This is no Lexington or Concord. I really don't know what to call it," writes Durden.

For their part, the BLM—or any other federal agency for that matter—probably doesn't want a shootout with the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. The government's botched handling of past sieges, like Ruby Ridge or the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, have been disastrous, leaving behind unnecessary body counts and deep, meaningful scars in the cultural imagination.

It might not come to that. Ammon Bundy has already said he's willing leave if the locals tell him "directly," to do so. Details such as which residents would have to say this, and what qualifies as "directly" have not yet been provided.

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Photo via Gage Skidmore