By Jeff Knox
(January 14, 2016) A couple of weeks ago, a group angry over a controversial court decision, and led by Ammon Bundy, moved into buildings on a remote Oregon wildlife refuge. Bundy is known for his role in a tense standoff between federal agents and militia groups at his father’s Nevada ranch a couple of years ago. Like the Bundy Ranch incident, the occupation of the headquarters buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge challenges federal authority over lands in the western U.S., and like the clash in Nevada, Bundy and his compatriots are armed and say that if attacked, they will defend themselves. It is this “heavily armed, anti-government militia” angle that has really caught the media’s attention.
Right after the group laid claim to the Wildlife Refuge headquarters, speculation ran rampant that the feds were going to come in hot and quash the dissidents, but so far the feds have shown no inclination to test the occupiers’ resolve. As a matter of fact they haven’t shown at all. After two weeks, there has been no sign of federal officers anywhere near the compound. The local sheriff has made efforts to talk Bundy and his friends into leaving, but Bundy politely declined the Sheriff’s offer of safe passage out of the state for the group.
Perhaps federal authorities actually learned something from deadly debacles like Ruby Ridge and the Waco tragedy. They have no urgent need to evict the group. The Refuge sees little activity in the winter months. There are no allegations of child abuse, illegal weapon stashes, or fears that a mass suicide might be in the works. There’s not even any indication that the group is mistreating the buildings or property. As a matter of fact, aside from a highly publicized fence cutting, it looks like they are taking good care of the place, and possibly even making some minor improvements.
All of the peace and quiet doesn’t seem to be sitting well with the media. Reporters and talking heads never refer to the “protesters” without saying “armed,” or “gun-toting” and they routinely refer to the group as “right-wing radicals,” “anti-government extremists,” “insurgents,” “armed militants,” and “domestic terrorists.” They refer to the occupation as a “siege,” a “standoff,” or an “invasion.” Some commentators have made indignant comparisons between the law enforcement reaction to these “heavily armed protesters” and the response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and police shootings of unarmed black men. At least one media type has called explicitly for the feds to “shoot to kill” the protesters. They seem frustrated and disappointed that the inequity isn’t being remedied by law enforcement launching a scorched earth attack on the Oregon “terrorists.”
In all of this, the media hardly mentions that the situation was precipitated by a court ordering two Oregon ranchers to return to prison to finish out sentences for “burning federal property.” They fail to mention that the ranchers, father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, have been in a protracted battle with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service over their land for years. The FWS manages the Malheur Refuge, and has been buying up land and expanding the Refuge for decades, engulfing the ranch, and leaving the Hammonds as the lone remaining holdouts. The story is worthy of a Louis L’Amour novel, with the FWS as the greedy land baron, using heavy-handed tactics to squeeze out the little guys. In those stories, the cattle baron often uses fire to get his way, and that’s what the FWS did, but with a twist.
Fire is commonly used by ranchers to improve range and prevent – or fight – wildfires. In 2006 Steven and Dwight Hammond were arrested, at the behest of federal agents, and booked on state charges for starting two fires, one in 2001, the other in 2006, but the County Prosecutor saw no case and dropped the charges. Five years later, they were arrested again and charged in Federal Court over the same two fires. The 2001 fire was a prescribed burn on Hammond land that got out of hand and burned 125 acres of federal land before the Hammonds got it extinguished. The 2006 fire stayed on Hammond land, and was set by Steven as a backburn to block a lightning-sparked wildfire sweeping in from federal lands. It succeeded in protecting their grass, and actually starved the wildfire, extinguishing it, but the Hammonds were charged with “maliciously” setting the fires in violation of the Federal Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996– that’s right, terrorism – and faced a minimum sentence of five years in prison, and a maximum possible penalty of death.
In June of the following year, Dwight and Steven were convicted in a controversial trial, and sentenced to three months, and one year respectively and ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution. The judge said he deviated from the sentencing guidelines because a five-year sentence would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” in the case. The Hammonds served their time and returned to the ranch making regular restitution payments, but in 2014, the prosecutor and federal agents filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit, and the court ruled that the judge didn’t have the authority to reduce the sentences under the ’96 act. The Hammonds were resentenced to five years each and ordered back to prison.
Ammon Bundy has posted a very comprehensive, though possibly biased, history of the case on the BundyRanch blog, which definitely raises some serious questions.
So now what? Thankfully the feds have adopted a ‘hands off’ policy, and hopefully that will continue. It’s clear that Bundy and his crew had planned this operation out about as well as the ATF boys did with Fast and Furious: in other words, not at all. They are obviously – and rightfully – frustrated and fed-up with federal overreach and unconstitutional actions, but they seem to have only gotten to the point in the planning where they would occupy a federal facility and dare the FBI to try and kick them out. They might have expected a violent confrontation that would activate like-minded people and begin a new Revolution, but it is all too apparent that they had no contingency plan in case the feds didn’t take the bait and act like jack-booted thugs.
Personally, I hope Ammon Bundy will call a news conference, talk about the plight of the Hammond family and offer some specific, easily understood examples of unconstitutional federal usurpation, then announce that his group’s objective was to bring attention to these matters, and they have successfully done so, and are now going to go home. He might even be able to work out some sort of immunity deal for his fellow travelers in exchange for a calm and peaceful retreat.