Over three weeks ago, a group of armed men occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The armed stand-off between the occupiers of a federal reserve and everyone else turns on a fundamental disagreement about democratic government and public property in America.
Malheur is located in an arid and lightly populated section of the huge Northern Great Basin in the West. Once this area was home to millions of large nesting birds, including egrets and greater sandhill cranes. In the late 19th century, hunters seeking feathers for hats nearly killed off these flocks. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation, one of 51 wildlife refuges he created as President. In the 1930s, over 1000 men in the Civilian Conservation Corps built stone buildings, miles of roads, bridges, camping facilities and lookout towers in the Refuge. They connected local communities with telephone lines. Jobs provided to local craftsmen, and purchases of food and supplies for the CCC enriched the economy of Harney County during the deepest Depression.
The Malheur Refuge is part of a nationwide system of wildlife refuges run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service within the Interior Department. Over 560 refuges across the country provide access to wildlife within an hour’s drive of most metropolitan centers. More than 45 million people visit the refuges every year for hunting, fishing, photography, hiking, or just watching. There are seven wildlife refuges in Illinois, including the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge at the confluence of the Illinois and Spoon Rivers, wetlands for thousands of migratory ducks only 40 miles north of Jacksonville.
The angry men who have taken over the Malheur Refuge don’t care about the democratic public uses of these federally owned lands. The occupiers disdain the idea of public property. They want the US government to give up control of the wildlife refuge to private uses. They asked local people to sign documents repudiating the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's authority.
A list of people who are occupying Malheur perhaps provides a sketch of the militia movement. Most have criminal records. Most went to Cliven Bundy’s ranch when he defied federal officials in 2014. Many have failed economically and owe money to the government they are protesting. Many had participated in another destructive demonstration of their disdain for public use in May 2014, when they drove ATVs through a canyon closed to motorized vehicles because it houses thousand-year-old ruins of dwellings and burial sites of Native Americans.
The occupiers thought local people would welcome them. The opposite is true. The ranchers whom the occupiers claimed they wanted to protect from arrest have criticized them. The Sheriff of Harney County condemned their intimidation of local law enforcement. A group of sportsmen, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, tore down a makeshift sign put up by the occupiers, and denounced their taking of public lands. A few days after the occupation began, the Sheriff asked hundreds of local residents at a public meeting at the Harney County Fairgrounds if the occupiers should leave. Nearly everybody raised their hands.
Like Cliven Bundy, their spiritual and political godfather, they want these lands, improved by a century of public investment, to be used for private economic benefit. In 20124, Bundy had concocted arguments about why the Constitution allowed him to have free grazing rights on public land, which every court rejected. He continued to graze his cattle on public land, but stopped paying. He used the language of the “sovereign citizen” movement to defend his right to ignore all government authorities. Ammon Bundy, his son and one of the stand-off leaders, rejects the authority of the FBI.
It’s not always useful to listen to a movement’s loudest mouths. But the Bundys have rallied this small occupation, and the wider movement of armed opponents of our democratic government, behind their expression of basic ideas.
They all wave the Constitution, along with “history books” that allege some connection between our founding document and their current politics. They reject all forms and manifestations of national government authority. That’s not a Constitutional interpretation that anyone else shares. It doesn’t derive from the document, it precedes it. The basis of this interpretation was made abundantly clear by Ammon Bundy: “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do.” Cliven and Ammon Bundy in 2014 and now Ammon Bundy again cited passages from the Book of Mormon as justification for their actions.
The sovereign occupier movement is a religious rebellion against the political structure of our country. All the nation’s authorities about that structure, from local law enforcement to state judges to the Supreme Court, plus the accumulated wisdom of generations of historians, reject the occupier movement’s claim to be supported by the Constitution. Leaders in the Church of the Latter Day Saints said they “are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles.”
In a 2014 survey, law enforcement agencies said sovereign citizen groups pose the greatest threat to their communities, more than radical Islamists.
Economists might applaud their tactics. If I wave the Bible and the Constitution and my gun and my cowboy hat enough, we won’t have to pay what we owe. So far it’s worked.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 26, 2016