Western grievances are real, but Bundy is the wrong guy to raise them

January 6, 2016
Ammon Bundy addresses the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 5, 2016. Saturday's takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, marked the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual rights. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Ammon Bundy addresses the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

When Ammon Bundy announced in a New Year’s Day Facebook video that “this is not the time to stand down,” viewers could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a bad reboot of The Alamo. Bundy and other armed protesters had just seized several buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Then, like a modern William Travis making a new last stand, Bundy declared, “the people have been abused” and vowed to stay “as long it takes” to ensure Westerners “can use these lands as free men.”

There are many reasons Bundy sounds scripted. His protest is part of a long and familiar history of Western resistance to federal authority that began in the 1820s, when Illinois and Missouri marked the left edge of the United States. Just like now, Westerners complained about poverty, powerlessness and federal overreach. But while Midwestern states did gain sovereignty of their lands, the 11 states of the Far West, collectively known as the “Public Land States,” did not.

That disparity resurfaced at Malheur when one protester insisted, “when the federal government controls [the land], they combine all three branches of government into one . . . without representation. A bureaucrat can [establish rules] with the force of law; it’s enforced by federal rangers; you get into trouble; you go up to a federal court; and none of these people do we elect.”

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President Theodore Roosevelt on Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley, California, in 1904. Library of Congress

This, too, is an old argument — first articulated by a bipartisan caucus of Westerners as President Theodore Roosevelt began to construct a permanent federal domain.

Most Americans associate these arguments with miners, loggers and ranchers. But climbers, hikers, kayakers, skiers and the guides who lead them offer remarkably similar views. After all, they are all governed by federal rules on lands that constitute 47 percent of the Far West. To put the matter bluntly, federal administrators hold great power over how and by whom nearly half the West gets used, and they are not representationally chosen.

Thus parts of the protest rest on solid history. It is the protestors’ ideas about the Constitution that falter. Echoing the philosophies of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, Bundy thinks the U.S. Constitution empowers him to defy federal authority. His twisted interpretation relies on a decontextualized appropriation of a few lines while ignoring the rest of the text — as well as a vast body of legislative and judicial law and the organic acts that created Western states by explicitly ceding all local claims to federal control.

Ultimately, though, history is Bundy’s enemy. Western congressmen did condemn the closing of the federal domain, yet even heated critics such as Representative Edward Taylor of Colorado, Representative Walter Lafferty of Oregon and Representative Frank Mondell of Wyoming recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court had confirmed the ability of the executive and legislative branches to withdraw lands, set rules and lease access. They called it unfair, immoral and unconscionable — but not unconstitutional.

The same holds today. Bundy believes he has a quasi-constitutional, quasi-divine right to defy federal rule. But his neighbors demur.

David Ward, Harney County’s duly elected sheriff, wants Bundy to “go home.” The ranching family that saw two members go to federal prison, and whose sentences triggered the protest, stated that Bundy’s group does not “speak for the Hammond family.” Residents of Burns, the town closest to Malheur, say the armed protesters have moved relations “backwards.”

Bundy wants to inspire a grass-roots uprising that terminates the tyrannical state. But he relies on bizarre arguments and imported rebels.

It is easy to dismiss this as a B movie. Bundy mouths confused lines. His allies look like Hollywood caricatures of angry white guys yearning to exit in a blaze of glory. Even federal personnel seem to follow a script, avoiding confrontation to prevent another Ruby Ridge or Waco, Texas.

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Tipi with sign ‘American Indian Movement’ on the grounds of the Washington Monument in Washington,” 1978. Library of Congress

The plot is supremely ironic given that its closest historical analogies are the American Indian Movement’s occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, both of which featured far more profoundly dispossessed Westerners, who suffered literal and figurative blazes but no glory.

But this occupation is not a movie, and the past is not repeating itself.

Rather, the protesters are dogged by their own history. In April 2014, members engaged in an armed standoff with federal personnel at a ranch in southern Nevada, a conflict precipitated by Ammon’s father Cliven Bundy, who had not paid federal grazing fees for two decades. The next month Ammon’s brother encouraged an illegal protest at an archaeological site in southern Utah. Neither confrontation was any more popular with locals than Ammon’s takeover in Harney County. The Bundys are known entities. Their arguments have been consumed and dismissed.

The Bundys, however, do not exhaust the views on Western federal lands. Many of their critics actually share their grievances, and collectively they expose problems with another script. When a January 2015 poll revealed that more than two-thirds of Westerners “think of public lands as American places that belong to the country as a whole,” environmentalists unsurprisingly declared federal sovereignty a closed argument. But the flip side of those numbers is that nearly a quarter of respondents believed federal lands should belong to the people of the individual state.

As with any poll, wording matters. Framed differently, questions might elicit remarkably more complex answers. For example, ask whether Westerners think federal agencies have done a good job, and we will probably see vast dissatisfaction with federal management. Ask whether Westerners want more revenue from federal leasing programs to go to state education and road budgets, and answers about who benefits likely get far more substantive.

Other issues loom, as well, including constitutional questions that go less well for federal supporters. But there is no way to shift the discussion until Westerners redefine the terms of the debate.

Trading the movie for history upends the scripts. Given that these have failed to reconcile conflicts, rebellion does seem in order. It’s just not Ammon Bundy’s version. Rather, a mutually comprehensible history of the federal lands is prerequisite to a discussion about a sustainable way for Westerners and managers to live with each other as well as the land.

Until then, prepare for more Bundy-like spectacles. They have been occurring for two centuries, and nothing to date has resolved the underlying grievances, many of which are real, legitimate and fundamental to any lasting resolution.

19 comments

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Haha. Ran out of snacks on day 3. Big revolution that was.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Do we think the armed guys in Oregon who have seized a federal building are “militiamen” or are they “domestic terrorists”? Why aren’t the police there to kill them? If these guys were all Black, wouldn’t they all be dead by now?

Posted by Menudo | Report as abusive

The real story is that the minimal leasing fees that the Bundys refuse to pay represent a huge subsidy to the few western ranchers who have grazing rights. The majority of westerners do not benefit and cannot compete on a even playing field with those who do have leases. The taxpayers of the U.S. as a whole get gypped even when the fees are paid. The Bundys are welfare queens, thieves, spoiled affluenza brats, and complete sociopaths rolled in one.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Don’t Native American have a voice in this, let alone a say? What’s the history of broken treaties in this part of Oregon? The West?

Posted by JeanT8 | Report as abusive

Baloney, the various stages of land governance,ultimately the Bureau of Land Management under Department of the Interior were all created by Congress. By means of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, Congress created a more unified bureau mission and recognized the value of the remaining public lands by declaring that these lands would remain in public ownership.
The land belongs to the American people, not a bunch of ranchers. All departments of government are made up of unelected administrators. The argument of the ranchers and the dopes occupying the fed building is completely bogus.

Posted by daphnesylk | Report as abusive

States Rights advocates are just nuts, anachronistic ones. Why do we have to even hear about them? Any more than people who believe that reptile aliens have taken over…

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

One thing forgotten by these ranchers is the disproportionate amount of influence voters in mountain western states have at the federal level. From the Dakotas west, all states have far greater representation in Washington than voters in California, Texas, NY, FL, etc. It doesn’t sound like this is an issue that enough western voters feel strongly enough about to move the needle in Washington. Only a handful of ranchers and anti-federal zealots seem to care. They should remain armed and banded together if they know what’s good for them. Head back to their ranch alone and they’ll be easy pickings for the FBI, which should absolutely charge these guys with federal crimes.

Posted by DD.V | Report as abusive

You forgot if these ranchers have a valid argument that they have been farming since 1900, then what about the Indians that have lived there for thousands of years.

Posted by cdizzle | Report as abusive

Prison systems overcrowded , drug dealers are getting early releases but those two rancher got extended sentences. Those rancher make living and support US economy by working in rural areas where most of these pediqued home boys in the commentary sections would never even take a selfie.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Aha… a well written piece that goes beyond the hoopla and explains the deeper issues at hand. What a concept…

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

This right-wing domestic terrorist is just looking for his 15 minutes of fame. No one wants them there, including the two men at the center of this issue and their families, so shut off the electric and water and, more importantly, send the TV crews home and they’ll be gone in no time.

Posted by GlennNM | Report as abusive

They closed this facility and this land off from the public, using an armed checkpoint. This helps the public… how?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Is there an election coming up? Maybe the Bundys are looking for a new home, politically speaking? Any takers? Maybe they should learn to read, then learn to write and that might help them understand the wider context of the constitution? But, by taking a leaf out of Hitler’s book and invading territory that doesn’t belong to them is not a good look or a productive way to win people over, them non-playing banjo folks, the ones that can read & write.

Posted by Takere | Report as abusive

Lets hope for once they get treated as Terrorists which they are and go to court to stand trial. Oh that won’t happen but if they were black or muslim? The bundies owe over a million dollars in grazing fees they haven’t paid for for over 20 yrs, Ammon the Moron got a $500k loan from the Fed WTF, what a hypocrite and the LDS & the Koch Bros are the bundys backers …. so this really isn’t about the “land”.

Posted by Takere | Report as abusive

The traitors’ grievances are greed, they have no argument and should be arrested and tried as terrorists.

Posted by DoubleSpeak84 | Report as abusive

Don’t tread on my Doritos!

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The author claims that rebellion is in order while the constituents of the problem desire anarchy; they DO NOT WANT THE LANDS TO BE CONTROLLED BY ANYONE they want the lands free and clear for their own property without payment.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

It is ironical that a bunch of hillbillies claim the land that was originally stolen by their ancestors from the native Americans, as part of the ethnic cleansing and holocaust that took place where millions of native American indians were wiped out.

Posted by gentiler | Report as abusive

Does anyone understand what is really going on here?

Posted by gentryv | Report as abusive