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