In case you hadn’t heard, there’s something going on in Burns, Oregon.
Most people who might have occasion to read the Pahvant Post probably already know that because we have re-posted several items about it. We first published something about the Hammond situation clear back in November, long before any of the recent developments that have gotten so much attention. But my perspective is that somewhere between 60-75% of Americans still don’t know anything about it. They aren’t even aware that anything is going on in Burns Oregon. And I seriously doubt that more than about 50% of people in Utah are aware of it. And 99.99% of them — just like people everywhere else — only know what they are being told by the mainstream media, and have no actual knowledge or understanding of any of it. And the part that I get the biggest kick out of is all the people who think they are experts about all of it, without any actual knowledge or understanding whatsoever. But since they have a completely uninformed opinion, that makes them an expert.
Although the Pahvant Post had picked and chosen and re-posted various other pieces about the situation and the backstory behind it, I hadn’t written anything about it, and did not intend to write anything about it without actual, personal knowledge and understanding of what was going on. And because I had no intention of going to Oregon to gain that understanding, I had no intention of writing anything about it. But that all changed last week. At the end of the day, the only reason I decided to go is because LaVoy Finicum’s brother, Guy, in his role as brother’s keeper, was shaking my hand, and looking me in the eye, as we were ready to go our separate ways after a long discussion, and said:
“I can’t blame you for not wanting to get involved, but we’re still going. Based on the way the media has portrayed and crucified LaVoy, our whole family is going. His children and grandchildren are going. My parents are going. We’re not going to support the cause or what they’re doing. But we’re going to show our love and support for LaVoy, and to let him know that we love him, and we want him to come home. And we would feel a whole lot better about the whole thing if you would go with us. What would it take to get you to go?”
It was the middle of the night. We had already been discussing and going back and forth for hours trying to size things up and wrap our heads around it, figure out what was really going on the best we could, and see if there was any way we could make any real difference, in order to make a decision. And based on all the information that had come out of that process, my resolve was not to go — for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that my plate was full, and the timing just wasn’t good. Not to mention the fact that I would be portrayed just exactly as plenty have tried to portray me. So I felt like it was essentially a no-win situation for me. But since I don’t really care what people think of me, and it’s not about me, and I was sincerely being asked by a very good man to go, I spent most of the rest of the night doing chores to make things easier for my good wife until I made it back, and I saddled up to go.
I have known the Finicum Family for almost 25 years, ever since the time I spent in Kane County and the Utah/Arizona border area. I know what good, salt-of-the-earth people they are.
And, by way of further background, I’m going to go ahead and say that I have known Cliven Bundy and his family for at least 20 years. When you do the kind of things I’ve done, go the kinds of places I’ve gone, and turn in the kind of circles I’ve turned, you meet and get to know people — of all kinds. Way back when, I could have chosen to be a government man. In fact, I took that path for a while. I could have taken a lot of different paths. But one thing I started doing was trying to help people — real people — like Mary Bulloch, who almost no one else was willing to help (there was a very small handful of ranchers, and Shawna Cox, who came to her aid). People who felt like, aside from God, they had no where else to turn. Not that I had anything special to offer, but as things have evolved over the years, I have tried not to turn those kind of people away — especially when they come ask for my help — whatever it is.
Back to Cliven Bundy. Despite our long-standing acquaintance, Cliven has always been distrustful of me, and by extension, so have the rest of his family. While we have agreed in principle about some things, it might be fair to say that the things we have disagreed about have outweighed the things we haved agreed about, and we have typically disagreed about tactics, methods and approach. I knew that. That was the reason I took an arms-length approach about Bunkerville. I think my friend, Jon Pratt’s philosophy and approach sums it up well: “friendly with all; entangling relationships with none.” Although he does a much better job of it than I do, that is one of the reasons I couldn’t see how I could do anything to really help change anything or resolve the situation in Oregon. And I’m not going to really talk about my real role and what I did while I was there other than to say that, among other things, I was trying to provide a calming influence both for those who I was traveling with, as well as those we were going to be working with, not to mention attempting to make a feeble attempt to be Olivia Pope, and see what I could do to try to help put a little lipstick on the pig, and finally to see what I/we might be able to do to help resolve and/or at least diffuse the situation. But just to set the record straight, I have never been the Bundy family attorney. I have never given them legal advice. I have never represented them. They have never asked, and I have never offered. We have a mutually respectful, arms-length relationship.
Shifting Gears. That whole phase is over now. My role on the ground at the refuge is concluded. I’m moving on, and I’m shifting gears. And as part of that, I’m going to explain my evolving perception of why Ammon Bundy did what he did in entering the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. I hadn’t really tried to completely wrap my head around it until I was on my way there and took the time to try to really process it. What follows is my perception of Ammon and his motives.
Right, wrong or indifferent, in 2014 Cliven Bundy and his family took a stand, and were resolved not to buckle. As the Federal Government gathered immense manpower, resources and equipment, including an entire army of security contractors and personnel, along with all the equipment they could possibly need, from weapons to helicopters and transportation, to gather and impound Bundy’s cattle, there is no question, Bundys were getting backed into a corner by a far superior force, with far superior firepower. The stakes were high, and they felt like (and they were) all alone. The federal government was prepared not just to intimidate them and back them into a corner, but to also squish them like a bug without any reservation. And they knew it. So they reached out. They called out for help. Was anyone willing to come stand with them and stand by them? At first the response was slow, but it gained traction and grew legs. People came. They rallied. The protest started gaining critical mass. And at a certain point it became obvious that the federal government couldn’t squish the Bundys like a bug without taking out a whole bunch of other people whose only alleged offense was simply the fact that they were there. Obviously, that changed the entire outcome of the BLM’s operation and the end result in Bunkerville.
But my perception is that Ammon Bundy came away a changed man for a variety of reasons. Despite the powder keg, although they hadn’t been squished; no shots had been fired, and no one had been killed, the federal forces inflicted serious violence on Ammon Bundy. Although he was completely unarmed, because he attempted to look in a dump truck that was driving by on a public access road, he was assaulted by multiple armed security personnel. He was attacked by a police dog, and Tasored four times. His middle-aged aunt was assaulted and thrown to the ground. A day or two before, Ammon’s brother Dave had likewise been assaulted, beat-up, and thrown in jail, just for trying to take pictures from a public road. The only reason all of those situations didn’t turn out worse was because other people were there, witnessing what was happening, taking pictures, and documenting the reality of what was happening and how they were being treated. Other people had stepped up to the plate to be there.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2015. If you don’t know the Hammond Saga, take the time to educate yourself about it, because I’m not going to attempt to tell that whole story here, as part of this piece. Suffice it to say that Ammon became aware of Hammonds’ situation. After everything else that had happened, the Federal Government was insistent on sending Dwight and Steven Hammond back to prison for five years for burning less than $1000 worth of vegetation on public land as “arson terrorists.” Ammon couldn’t help but feel like they were being sorely abused. So he went to meet them, explore the situation, educate himself, and try to see if there was anything that could be done to help them. From my perspective, with Ammon having been a product of his own experiences, including personal violence and abuse by the Federal government, and having experienced first hand what a difference it can make when other people are there, because they have stood up, and come to help, he felt obligated to pay it forward, and try to see what he could do to help Hammonds out.
What Ammon learned after he got there (and what I didn’t know until I got there) is that the Hammond case is just the tip of the iceberg in Harney County Oregon. Here where I live, although there is some disgruntlement and friction here and there with the BLM, for the most part — right here where I live, and right now — there seems to be a reasonably decent working relationship between ranchers and the BLM, without the strong resentment that exists in other areas based on the BLM’s growing unreasonableness and heavy-handedness. But that is part of the reason I moved — to get away from the BLM and the Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monumnet, that our old place was right in the middle of. And even there (and everywhere you go) there are also a lot of ranchers everywhere who simply go along to get along. They would like things to be different. They would like to say or do something, but they don’t dare, because they have seen how others have been treated and picked on.
I’m going to come back to this, but the thing I learned first hand from going to Burns Oregon, and going to a packed community meeting of ranchers, etc., is that in Harney County Oregon the attitude toward the BLM is completely different than it is here where I live now. Many of the ranchers in that area feel like with the BLM they are dealing with a hostile, oppressive, occupying force — essentially an army — that is hell-bent on their destruction. And they feel like the federal government has completely crippled their local economy. Once again, the Hammond story is just the tip of the iceberg. And unless you’re in a meeting like that, surrounded by hundreds — that’s right HUNDREDS — of people, in a very physically large, remote, but sparsely populated county, and all those people are saying the same thing, you start to understand that there is a huge gap between the reality on the ground and what is being portrayed.
Based on all that, my perception is that although Hammonds ultimately decided to submit to the federal court’s order, and return to prison, Ammon Bundy didn’t feel like his work was done. He felt like there was an opportunity to seize the moment to grab the soapbox and bring greater awareness to the situation and what was really going on. But he also realized that he might have to do something kind of crazy to really accomplish anything in that regard.
Back to the public meeting. For me it was a critical measuring stick as to local public sentiment. That meeting was going be my first opportunity to really measure the locals’ position about what Ammon had done — especially among the local ranching community. I didn’t know what to expect at the meeting. I have been going to those kind of meetings in those kinds of places for at least 25 years. Based on my experiences in Utah, I thought there might be 20-30 people — 50 tops. But there were hundreds. The place was packed. There wasn’t even standing room. Dave Duquette with Protect the Harvest had brought in Trent Loos — had flown him clear out from Nebraska — to serve as the moderator for the meeting. And let’s be clear and see if we can gain a better understanding of a couple things to help put all of this in proper perspective. It’s true, some of the people in the town of Burns probably feel differently. But let’s also consider the demographics of Harney County. Although Harney is the biggest county in Oregon, and larger than several Eastern states, the entire county has a population of only about 7000 people, with about 2700 of them living in the town of Burns. There are a few other scattered, very small towns in the county, but unlike places like Utah (which is unlike most places in the West, an an exception to the general rule in this regard) where even most of the farmers and ranchers actually live in town, in Harney County Oregon (which better represents the norm), approximately 50% of the entire county population lives out on the land that they make their living from, ranching, farming, logging, mining, etc. There is no question that the people who live in town and are not directly affected by the BLM may feel differently. But among the large ranching community, their message left no doubt. The consensus was: there is a serious problem, and they are very thankful for what Ammon Bundy has done because it gives them hope that maybe something can be done to fix the problem(s).
And I want to give a few examples just to help illustrate the point. But before I do, I better give a little more background. Although the Malheur refuge is a full 30 miles from Burns, just about as far out in the middle of nowhere as you can possibly get, at the beginning of last week the local school district announced that it was closing the public schools for the entire week based on public safety concerns. In light of this, at the public meeting a young rancher stood up and said that on Sunday, the day after the protest at the Refuge started, he had immediately gone out there to meet the people who were there, including the Bundys, and to see for himself what was going on. The next day when they announced that there wasn’t going to be any school that week, he told his wife that she should pack up their kids and take them on a field trip to the refuge to meet the people there and see what was going on. That is how concerned he was about “public safety” — right at the wildlife refuge.
Now, a little more background for the other point I want to make. The wildlife refuge where this is all happening has often been described as a “federal building,” as if it were a courthouse in Oklahoma City or something. I prefer to just refer to it as “public” land. The reality is, the refuge includes an entire complex, much like a ranch headquarters, with multiple buildings, including visitor’s center, offices, museum, etc., and multiple outbuildings. The complex also includes a large dormitory, with kitchen, lounge area, etc., complete with gym and work-out room, etc., for wildlands firefighters. From what I understand, many of the buildings were unlocked when Ammon and those who were with him arrived. And weren’t they members of the public? The buildings that were not unlocked had key boxes that were unlocked, so they just used the keys in the key boxes to enter. There was no breaking and entering.
This all happened right on the tail of the Christmas/New Years holiday, but from what I understand, the place looked like it had been completely abandoned. There had been a lot of snow, but no snow removal. There was very little evidence of any human activity there for some time. Consequently, local volunteers, like the one pictured here, were there shoveling snow and clearing sidewalks (and we did some of that ourselves). Moreover, although it is the biggest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states (and continually getting bigger), there is serious doubt that more than about 50 locals a year even visit it. Among local ranchers, the refuge is one of the biggest reasons they are being treated the way they are. It has become a symbol of the BLM’s unquestionable quest to drive them off the land.
But while I was there, there was a steady flow of pickups coming in — local ranchers bringing donations of all kinds. They were bringing in food and supplies of all kinds. The dormitory kitchen has four (4) large refrigerators, plus additional freezers. I looked in every one of them. Every single one of them was chuck full of locally processed meat that had been donated by local ranchers. Shelves were set-up in the work-out room to help organize and handle all the stuff people were bringing and donating to the cause. What does that tell you?
Now, back to the meeting. The executive committee — essentially the task force elected by locals to deal with the situation — had drafted a very respectful letter to Ammon, asking him to leave the refuge. They had shown him a draft of the letter just to help him understand where they were headed, and let him start making plans accordingly, but they didn’t vote on what to do with the letter until that evening. And when they voted, the committee was split on what to do. They all wanted to sign the letter and deliver it to Ammon, but half the committee did not believe they were ready to do it YET. Their biggest concern was what might happen if he pulled out too soon. So they have the letter, and my understanding is that they intend to sign and deliver it when a majority of the committee believes it is time — possibly as early as this coming weekend. There are more meetings scheduled for Friday night, including a pubilc meeting a a large venue, where Ammon is slated to come and explain to the whole community his plan for leaving the refuge.
Updated Sidenote Insertion: Since I’ve been back home, I have been the recipient of multiple communications from local ranchers and residents of Harney County. From those communications and what I learned while I was there, it is obvious that even their current local political leaders may be a big part of the problem, and nothing more than puppets of the federal government. The county sheriff certainly leaves that impression. And the games these local, good ol’ boy politicians are playing is just as disconcerting as what the federal government is and has been doing. Once again, I like to provide examples of what I’m talking about, and I think the one I’m going to provide on this point is a good one.
I haven’t had an opportunity to completely wrap my mind around how the local government structure works in Oregon, but from what I understand in Harney County there is a three member board of county commissioners. And this is one of the things I just can’t quite comprehend: one of the people on that BOCC is the so-called “county judge” — Steven Grasty. But hopefully someone can eventually bring me some clarity about this — the county judge, i.e., the judicial branch of local government — is also on the BOCC — the legislative branch? Is it just me? Can someone please help me understand how this doesn’t violate the most fundamental concept of separation of powers? And it sounds like he’s also acting as an executive — at best — outright king, at worst. No wonder Harney County has problems — especially if the local political situation is that incestuous, and they are all puppets of the federal government to boot.
Anyway, just to help understand the absolute absurdity of the situation, Judge Grasty, acting not in his capacity as a judge — because I can’t see that there is any case before him — and not acting in his capacity as a legislator, with other legislators, as part of any legitimate legislative body, but more in the role of Harney County King, has issued an edict that the Harney County committee of Safety and its executive committee cannot hold any meetings in any so-called “public” venue or facility in Harney County. He has said that no “public” facility in the county can be made available to them. Forgive me, but this is starting to sound like how the federal government was treating the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, with it’s previous welcome sign, which prominently stated “Welcome to Your National Wildlife Refuge.” The safety committee was trying to plan a big meeting for this coming Friday night where Ammon Bundy was supposed to come explain his plans for leaving the refuge, so they arranged to hold the meeting at the largest venue in the whole county — the multi-purpose building at the county fairgrounds — but Judge Grasty shut them down and once again said they could not use any so-called “public” facility in Harney County. Now Grasty — and at this point I’m not even going dignify him by referring to him as a Judge — actions speak louder than words — has said that he is going to issue yet another unilateral edict, billing Ammon Bundy $70,000/day for security services. Is it just me, or does anyone else smell something rotten in Denmark?
I have heard it said that what the Harney County Committee of Safety is doing is creating a constitutional crisis. But I’m here to tell you there is no question that what Steven Grasty is doing is creating a constitutional crisis in Harney County. Where is the separation of powers? Where is the due process? Where is the equal protection? Where are the checks and balances? Where is the accountability? Eventually, it always comes back to We The People. We the people are the only ones who can give any legitimate government any true power or authority. Anything short of that is just brute force by people abusing the power and authority they supposedly have. When you compare what Steven Grasty is doing with what the constitution says is supposed to happen, it shouldn’t be hard to see there’s a serious problem. And you think the so-called “justice” system is going to sort it out? Think again. When it comes to the federal court system addressing these issues that is the absolute epitome of the fox guarding the hen house. And who’s the so-called judge, jury, so-called justice system, and executioner, at the local level — Steven Grasty. At this point, I think the rotten smell has moved well beyond Denmark. Again, just my perspective.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Sadly, this is a very common pattern. Public officials want everyone else to follow the law, while they pick and choose, and often completely ignore the laws that apply to them, which they are often completely and deliberately indifferent to. Let’s not forget the old saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which appears to have some application here, at several different levels. Both Grasty and the federal government seem to be taking the position that the beatings will continue until morale improves.
But since the constitution has come up, I invite you to see what Constitutional Attorney KrisAnne Hall has to say about this. I agree that this whole situation has raised a lot of critical questions, and the foundation for all of them in this situation may be what KrisAnne Hall is talking about. I encourage people to do themselves the favor of seeing what she has to say. I realize there may be plenty of people who disagree, and they are entitled to their opinions.
Shifting Gears Again. Here’s something else to consider in terms of the gap between reality and the spin that is being put on this whole thing, especially in terms of support for what is going on. And let me just say again, Dave Duquette with Protect the Harvest was there. And not with any hesitance or trepidation. He had Trent Loos with him. Had flown him out to moderate the public meeting. And then they went to the refuge to see for themselves what was going on. Protect the Harvest was there to size things up, and try to gain a full understanding of what is really going on, with its people, resources available to help make a difference in protecting the grassroots agricultural interests in Harney County Oregon.
And I want to say a few words about the executive committee. During the short time I was there I had multiple opportunities to meet with and have follow-up communications with them. And I want to say in terms of leadership and capability, in 25+ years of doing this sort of thing, I’ve never worked with a group or task force that I felt as good about, in terms of their sincere intentions, or had as much confidence in. They are amazingly bright, experienced, well-informed people in the community, who understand what is going on and truly give a damn.
The other thing I learned from a whole bunch of different angles is that the Militia thing is real — but maybe not so much as it has been portrayed, and not at the wildlife refuge. At the refuge I didn’t really observe much noticable militia presence — except in the dormitory/kitchen area, where the militia’s material support structure was fully in place — cooking meals, organizing donations, cleaning toilets, making sure that everyone — and I mean EVERYONE, because anyone can go in there — is adequately clothed, sheltered and fed. In the kitchen/lounge area there was food everywhere. There were always at least two people who looked like they knew what they were doing cooking. At one point, there were two women cooking. One of them was youngish, with a pistol on her belt, stirring a gargantuan pot of chili. So I spent some time talking to her. She was a nurse from Seattle, affiliated with the material support unit of the PPN — Pacific Patriot Network. She had been called out, and responded to the call. She was there in a support role. Since they didn’t need her skills as a nurse, she was cooking. Otherwise, although some people at the wildlife refuge may be carrying sidearms for their own personal protection, no offensive weapons and battle rattle are visible, if on-site at all. But there is no question, PNN is not far away, and they are always watching. If anything, they claim to be there on a peacekeeping mission — in their words “to make sure the Feds don’t try to pull another Waco — without consequences.”
I had never even heard of the PPN before I got there. But I got educated about who and what they are, and what they do. I also learned about something known as the Patriot Railroad. They would simply put out word on the Patriot railroad about what they needed — stuff like mattresses, bedding, winter clothing, etc., and within about 24 hours, the stuff they needed and requested would start rolling in — from as far away as the East coast.
But aside from the material support presence, the only time I saw any real militia — and the only time I saw any rifles or offensive weapons — at the refuge was when the PPN and Idaho 3% Leaders came to meet with Ammon Bundy, in broad daylight, with their security detail. The leaders were completely unarmed, but their security detail was fully armed with rifles and battle rattle, and looked like they meant business. Those leaders presented Ammon with proposed articles of resolution. But after they met with Ammon, their whole convoy and contingency turned around and left the refuge area. It is my understanding that they went to have the same conversation with the FBI.
At this point, as a veteran observer of a few of these “stand-offs” at this point I have coined a new phrase. I call it “Standoff Pageantry.” The main players in the standoff pageantry are the media, the Federal Government, and in this case, the organized militia, including the PPN. They are all putting on quite a show — and that is exactly why they’re doing it. Ammon Bundy and his associates are just a minor, distorted, misunderstood side-story. The most real people and element of the whole equation are Harney County ranchers, including the executive committee of the Harney County committee of safety.
Think about it. You live in a little town out in the middle of nowhere, where suddenly this happens. The FBI starts moving in. As opposed to the story they’re trying to feed the public about public safety concerns, yada, yada, yada, the reality is, the FBI wanted to commandeer the Jr. High School to use as a command center. That is why the schools were shut down. And they also started amassing forces and equipment to a staging area at the local airport — all part of a big show to try to made a big impression, intimidate everyone, and spin it their way.
And the militia, including the PPN is responding in kind. Because of what the federal government and the FBI are doing, they are doing the same thing — amassing forces. But because they are standing back, waiting, watching, hiding in the woods, so to speak, every once in a while, they have to put on a show to remind everyone that they are there, and ready to rock and roll. To help better understand this, read the James Pogue article about Sugar Pine Mine. As one of their leaders told me, they have delivered a very clear and strong message that “if the FBI decides to do something stupid, we’re going to do something stupid too.”
So in that sense, it’s not like some fluffy, shallow, artificial pageant. It might actually be more like the Olympics because after the opening ceremonies and all the pageantry and show, people might actually go out on the mat, and duke it out. And there are people assembled in Harney County Oregon who claim to be ready to really duke it out. But I didn’t see many of them at the Refuge.
But just to make my perspective clear, I sincerely hope (and don’t believe) that it will come to that. Not for a second while I was there did I ever have any fear for my own safety, or really anyone else’s. I knew there was no risk from the so-called militants — I have far greater concern about the federal government — I know what they did in San Juan County. But as stupid, and heavy-handed as I know the federal government can be (again, don’t forget San Juan County, and plenty of other examples), at this point even I don’t think they are going to be that stupid. And one of the biggest reasons is they fully understand just how much resentment is building towards federal overreach and heavy-handedness, and I don’t mean from the militia, but more importantly among the local ranching community, and ranchers, and loggers, and miners, and people through-out the West who live on the land and struggle to try to make a living on the land. Among that group of people through-out the West, the clear consensus is that the long-term plan of the Federal Government, and the environmentalists, and everyone else that resents their presence on “public” lands — is to drive them off the land. Yes, if the federal government decides to unleash its full military might, the militia would definitely have its hands full and probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance. But it’s a totally different ball game when normal people — completely unarmed — stand up and say Enough!
When this happened to Mary Bulloch and her supporters, most of the local ranching community turned tail and ran, and did not stand by them. Same thing with Cliven Bundy. Most of the local Nevada ranching community did not stand by him. His support came almost entirely from the outside. But in Harney County Oregon the bulk of local support for both Hammonds and Ammon Bundy is more than I would have ever imagined (based on my experience), and would hopefully be more than sufficient to stop the federal government from doing something that stupid — this time. If it were just a handful of so-called radicals, I have no question that the Feds might try to squish them like a bug. But I’m hopeful that under these circumstances, with the support that is slowly building, if the Feds don’t initiate by doing something really stupid, no one else is going to do something stupid enough to get someone hurt or killed — this time. Despite how many media outlets are trying to portray this, I don’t think it’s just a bunch of batshit crazy, radical, trigger-happy rednecks who can’t possibly exercise restraint. I realize that may be a big disappointment for many, because it means that it may in all likelihood come to an anti-climactic close. And it will deprive the Obama administration and others of their poster child for more gun control.
And that brings us to the third and probably most important player in the whole Pageant — the media. The whole thing is an absolute media circus, and the opening ceremonies and pageantry can only go on for so long, or they have to go home. So they want the real games to actually begin already, so they can have a real story to create a feeding frenzy about. Or at least make it sound like that’s what is going to happen. Otherwise, there’s really nothing left to talk about, and they just have to spin it the best they can, according to their own agendas.
And once again, I can’t help but be amused at how many people are now self-proclaimed experts about what is happening, and why, based on the spin they see, or the fantasies they try to create about it.
In conclusion, I’m going to paraphrase what my friend Jon Pratt said at one of the press conferences, primarily to the media: “Why are you here? What are your motives? What is in your heart?”