The rugged ranch-reared sons of Nevada cowboy-turned-grazing-fee-cheat Cliven Bundy aren’t the salt-of-the-earth ‘Merica-loving cowboys you might think they are.
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the so-called militia group, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, owns and runs a fleet vehicle repair service in Phoenix. His brother Ryan works in construction when he’s not in and out of southern Utah courtrooms for odd-ball offenses like letting his horse roam outside of its corral or interfering with an arresting officer.
These guys aren’t cowboys. They’re crackpots. And they’ve suffered a bit of mission drift over the course of the last couple of weeks. They’ve gone from trying to keep a pair of Oregon ranchers—Dwight and Steven Hammond—out of jail to demanding that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding national forest land be “returned” to its rightful owners.
The Hammonds are, indeed, ranchers, that were convicted in a court of law of two separate charges of arson. The first fire, in 2001, was started, according to court witnesses, to cover up an illegal deer slaughter. The second, started in 2006, was reportedly started to serve as a back-burn against a lightning-ignited wildfire on adjacent public land. For their crimes, they received relatively light jail terms that most would agree were in line with their crimes. Then, last year, after reviewing the case, a federal court ordered that the Hammonds be returned to prison to serve longer terms required under federal minimum sentencing laws—five years.
As ordered, after the holidays, the Hammonds reported to prison.
Ammon Bundy left his Phoenix fleet repair shop, grabbed his brother and a host of right-wing, anti-government extremists and — in protest of the Hammond’s incarceration — courageously conquered a vacant federal visitors’ center at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where they sit today, pleading with sympathizers for snacks and bathroom tissue. And they say they’ll sit there until their demands are met.
The Hammonds have wisely and publicly disavowed the Bundys and their supporters. They’re serving their time and many presume that, with good behavior, they’ll be out in short order. Additionally, the citizens of nearby Burns, the Harney County sheriff and just about everybody who doesn’t see a federal bogeyman behind every rock and tree has kindly asked them to leave and let the locals return to a normal existence in their remote but beautiful corner of the Northwest.
Oh, but their demands. In addition to asking for Power Bars and Charmin, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom are asking that the public lands of the refuge and the adjacent national forest be handed over to their rightful owners—the ranchers of Harney County, from whom it was presumably stolen years ago.
The refuge was designated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and comprised of unclaimed government lands for the purpose of protecting migratory birds that frequented Malheur, Harney and Mud lakes. The birds—cranes, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, etc.— were under serious threat from plume hunters in the late 19th century, and these lakes and wetlands were a vital stopping point along the Pacific flyway.
The refuge has grown over the years, thanks to willing sellers, often influenced by floods and drought that are part of the natural order of things in this lonely outpost of the Great Basin. It’s a tough life on the sage prairie of eastern Oregon, particularly for cows and sheep and those hearty souls who raise them. Naturally, there has been conflict between some landowners and the feds—this can’t be discounted. But, in recent years, efforts on the part of local ranchers, the community and, yes, the federal government, have born fruit. The refuge negotiated a management plan with local stakeholders, including ranchers, environmentalists, the recreation community and local governments. It’s six months old, and folks were optimistic that progress was being made. Amazing things can happen when you sit down and willingly work toward a common goal with a willingness to listen and compromise.
Then the Bundys showed up with their pals—armed to the teeth—to protest the mistreatment of the Hammonds, seized a vacant visitors’ building, blocked access to a public resource and … changed their story. No longer are they interested in the Hammond’s plight. Now, it’s all about returning the refuge and the surrounding national forest lands to the people—the ranch owners of Harney County.
It’s important to note that, upon statehood, western states signed away any claims to unclaimed land, Oregon included. Most public land in Oregon has never been “owned” by anyone (although a compelling case for ownership of the refuge and the surrounding forest could be made on behalf of the Burns Paiute Indian tribe) but the feds. And, just as is common throughout the entire Intermountain West, much of that land has been made available to ranchers who wish graze their herds on land belonging to every single American, but for a price. Last March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management raised their grazing fees as required by Congress (yes, the same Republican Congress that starves the budgets of the Forest Service and the BLM, continually tries to float the idea of public land privatization through government channels and disregards overwhelming public sentiment supporting the one, true birthright every American enjoys—a stake in public real estate) to a whopping $1.69 per animal unit (a cow and a calf).
On the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and on the Malheur National Forest, allotments are carefully managed to ensure that grazing is as fruitful as can be in a high-desert ecosystem while still protecting habitat for everything from sage grouse to steelhead. It’s not a free-for-all endeavor, nor should it be. Grazing, when managed correctly, can enhance rangelands and make them more fruitful for ranchers and wildlife. When done incorrectly, it can be devastating to watersheds, to native vegetation and to the native wildlife species.
It’s in the best interest of grazing lease holders to ensure the health of the land they graze, and most ranchers across the country are truly stewards of the land, both their own, and the public land they pay a very small price to use. These lands, in addition to sustaining cattle and sheep, are home to wild and native trout, big game herds, sage grouse and other upland game birds and, of course native vegetation that’s important to all of the above.
So when Ammon Bundy decided during the Malheur occupation to open the fence between the refuge and adjacent private lands, his message was clear: he and his cohorts have no respect for the multi-use mission of the refuge, the BLM or the Forest Service. Multi-use, in Bundy’s mind, must mean cattle and sheep.
This behavior—and this no-compromise message— is no surprise, really. Bundy’s father, Cliven, is little more than a welfare rancher who’s been grazing his cattle on southern Nevada public land for free for years. In 2014, when the feds rounded up his herd and tried to collect $1 million in unpaid grazing fees accumulated during Cliven’s twenty-plus years of failure to pay (remember, these grazing fees aren’t onerous, they’re generous—and are a mere fraction of the average $20.10 per animal unit charged by private landholders in the Western U.S.), the Bundys called in their anti-government brethren and forced an armed standoff with BLM agents. Wisely, the feds backed down and didn’t force a massacre, but nothing has been done since. The Bundy cows still pick their way through the sage and gobble up what little grass there is in the hard-pan desert, and the grazing-fee bill just keeps growing.
This is the “freedom” the Bundy boys hope to secure for ranchers in Harney County, too, I suspect. The freedom to ignore the establishment rather than work within it. The freedom to speak for other ranchers, even when it’s not welcomed. The freedom to do as they please because they’re the so-called rugged Western independent souls who just want to be able to don a duster, a cowboy hat and a six-shooter and stick up for the little guy who’s been so very put upon by the feds. The freedom to lock the rest of us out of our public lands.
As an aside, it should be noted that Ammon Bundy applied for and received a $530,000 small business loan in 2010 that was guaranteed by the very government he claims is tyrannical and oppressive. It would seem Bundy is only willing to work within the system so long as the system meets his own needs.
Trouble is, outside of a fringe element of extremists and a handful of ultra-right-wing lawmakers in state legislatures around the West, the rest of us value our public lands as a resource belonging to everyone, not just the Bundy Bunch. The new Conservation in the West report, produced annually by Colorado College, shows that 58 percent of Western voters support keeping federal public lands under federal management, and that 72 percent of Western voters recognize that public lands are good for the overall economy. Voters in only one state, Utah (and we know the solution for Utah) show less than 50 percent (47 percent) support for keeping federal public lands under federal management, but that still outweighs the 43 percent of state voters who want the land transferred to to the state.
Meanwhile the armed and vocal minority in Harney County—a couple dozen of them, at last count—continue to hole up in the visitors’ center at the public wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has generously kept the power on for the occupying force.
It’s no wonder the folks of Harney County want these guys gone. With a new refuge management plan that, until the occupation from an outside gang of extremist thugs, was working on behalf of all involved, there’s progress to made and enjoyed. The spirit of collaboration was in place, and things were better. And these people don’t want to be associated with the militants who have resorted to hijacking a government building in order to give a voice to their disjointed, drifting mission statement.
Here’s hoping they run out of Funyuns soon.