According to High Country News Editor, Tay Wiles, “Many critics of the occupation fear the verdict will embolden people in Western states who dislike the federal government to use violence or threats to try to force land agencies to bend to their will. “People are going to get killed because of this verdict because this jury has just given militias the green light to go after federal facilities with rifles,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Los Angeles Times.
Note: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, here at RANGEFIRE! we have no interest in being a single-dimensional echo chamber. We acknowledge that there are always multiple sides to every story. In the West, there is an old saying to the effect that: “good fences make good neighbors.” At RANGEfire! we acknowledge our virtual neighbors on this virtual landscape. We think it is important for people to have an opportunity to hear all sides of the story, and know what others are saying about these issues. So we often share what others are saying.
Ironically, people have already been killed, as a result of a protest demonstration that a jury found to be lawful and peaceful, with no actual threats, intimidation or violence. But long before any determination of guilt or innocence, the Federal. State and Local Governments, acting in coordinated unison staged a carefully planned execution of LaVoy Finicum, and then sought to cover-up what really happened. Moreover, although HCN and Kieran Suckling are criticizing so-called “Sagebrush Rebels” for criticizing Federal management of applicable lands and resources, Ironically, some pretty strange bedfellows share this view (that the Federal Government has missed, and is missing the mark). Even most environmental groups regularly contend that the federal government is doing a really bad job managing the resources, and they continually sue the federal government, arguing that the government is doing a lousy job, and isn’t following its own statutory mandates. In a recent social media exchange with RANGEFIRE! Editor Todd Macfarlane, Kieran Suckling bragged that he and the Center for Biological Diversity have sued the Federral Government over 500 times — for mismanagement of land and resources. But Suckling and CBD hate jury trials. Their primary tactic is to sue, and settle in an effort to dictate federal land-used policy, and then collect Equal Access to Justice Act Reimbursements to fund their efforts.
Long before the Oregon Standoff Trial was over, Suckling was starting to push the panic button, and engaging in widespread fear-mongering about the possible consequences of acquittals in the case — predicting, in an interview with OPB, that such acquittals would result in a “catastrophic disaster” and multiple violent protests across the West.
Unfortunately, Suckling, HCN, and the Mainstream Media are all blinded by their own biases. By comparison to the Malheur Occupation, which they roundly critcized, the DAPL Protest in North Dakota, which they are fully advocating, with their own predictable twist and spin, has spawned much more violence and provocation than anything real or imagined in Oregon — except for the governments’ own violence toward the occupiers, and particularly LaVoy Finicum.
According to Wiles/HCN, “On Oct. 27, a jury found seven defendants not guilty of charges filed against them for their part in the 41-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and February. Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy and five others were charged with conspiracy to prevent federal employees at the refuge from doing their jobs by intimidation, threats or force.
Many critics of the occupation fear the verdict will embolden people in Western states who dislike the federal government to use violence or threats to try to force land agencies to bend to their will. “People are going to get killed because of this verdict because this jury has just given militias the green light to go after federal facilities with rifles,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Los Angeles Times.
The Bundys and their supporters say federal lands are mismanaged and should be turned over to state or local control. In early January Ammon Bundy led a small group to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that lasted 41 days. At its peak, the occupation grew to include a few dozen people, who lived in and around refuge facilities. They bulldozed new roads in the refuge, handled tribal artifacts stored in the refuge headquarters and prevented federal employees from returning to work for weeks, as they argued for the refuge to be turned over to local control. The arrest of the Bundys and several other occupiers in February was a setback to their cause, but the new acquittal gives it a shot in the arm.
Yet many rural Westerners had more mixed responses. Tom Collins, a rancher and former commissioner of Clark County, Nevada, calls the occupation leaders “a bunch of radical Mormons left over from the John Birch Society.” Collins is friends with the father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 led an armed standoff with BLM employees at his Nevada ranch after they tried to impound his cattle over unpaid grazing fees. But Collins did not approve of that standoff, and when asked whether he supported the armed occupation of the wildlife refuge, Collins said he appreciated the fact that it had drawn national attention to issues with federal land management. “I will not say that I disagree with the outcome of the jury,” he added. “I would not have liked the Tea Party if they had not had been successful and created a revolution.”
During the trial this month, defense attorney Matthew Schindler said the Bundys were “protesting the death of rural America” by occupying the refuge. It’s true that many Western communities are struggling: Rising costs for small businesses and market consolidation in agriculture threaten rural lifestyles; environmental regulations, growing populations of wild horses, and bureaucratic dysfunction in some federal offices pose challenges for ranchers. But now, on top of those challenges, misinformation — such as the claim that it’s illegal for the federal government to own land in the West — is likely to polarize the issues further.
Critics of the Bundys say their actions have distracted from real rural issues. Land Tawney, the head of the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, released a statement Thursday night saying the organization is “profoundly disappointed in the jury’s decision… The jury’s decision flies in the face of the basic principle that America’s national wildlife refuges and other public lands belong to all Americans.”
The verdict may make problem-solving around public lands even more difficult. Earlier this year, ranchers in at least two other states vowed to renounce their federal grazing permits in solidarity with the Bundys and to support the claim that the feds have no place on public lands. (State and federal employees told HCN those ranchers did not follow through with those statements and their grazing fees are, in fact, paid off.) In June, Utahn William Keebler was apprehended by FBI for allegedly attempting to blow up a Bureau of Land Management facility in Arizona; a federal complaint stated Keebler hoped to create a confrontation similar to the 2014 Bundy standoff.
In an all-staff email, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze wrote: “While we must remain respectful of the jury’s decision, we must also be clear-eyed about the potential impacts of yesterday’s verdict.”
Secretary Sally Jewell also sent an email to all Department of Interior employees: “While we must respect the jury’s decision because we believe in the rule of law and our system of justice, I am profoundly disappointed in this outcome and am concerned about its potential implications for our employees and for the effective management of public lands. Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and I visited Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in March to meet with employees impacted by the occupation. It was painful to hear from employees who had devoted entire careers to public service and were worried about their safety as they carried out their important missions on behalf of the American people…. As we digest the jury’s verdict, our foremost priority continues to be the safety, security, and well-being of people who comprise the Federal family and those visiting America’s public lands.”*
In addition to Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the defendants acquitted Thursday were Shawna Cox, David Fry, Ken Medenbach, Jeff Banta and Neil Wampler. The Bundy brothers, who remain in custody, will next join Cliven Bundy and their brother Dave to be tried for their actions in the 2014 Nevada standoff. Legal experts say there’s a chance government prosecutors may consider lessening charges in order to not risk another acquittal. That trial is slated for February 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
This story has been updated to include internal communications from the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management that were provided to HCN.
Tay Wiles is associate editor at High Country News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
RANGE / RANGEFIRE! — Addressing Issues Facing the West / Spreading America’s Cowboy Spirit Beyond the Outback