A new term was introduced into my hashtag lexicon over the weekend: #Y’allQaeda. But while the Twitterverse is busy posting puns at the expense of disenfranchised rednecks that have seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, the reality remains that the actions and ideology of these militants is nothing new at all.
The handle they prefer, of course, is “militia.” Better yet, “patriot.” But such self-proclamations imply undeserving intangibles like regulation, and perhaps even honor. Militant is more accurate, and all the associated belligerence and fanaticism it suggests. The term “terrorist” has been applied more than a few times.
Ringleader Ammon Bundy is the quintessential rebel without a clue, even when offered the magnanimous opportunity to present his cause to the American masses through mainstream media. “This refuge, from its very inception has been a tool of tyranny,” Bundy told a reporter from Oregon Public Broadcasting the day after commandeering the remote refuge that serves primarily as a bird-watching destination.
Well armed and itching for a fight, the insurgent occupiers claim their mission is to put the publicly-owned, but federally-managed lands under local control, although exactly how remains unclear. Bundy believes the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the unclaimed government lands as a wildlife preserve back in 1908.
It’s worth noting that some 50 percent of the non-farming residents employed in surrounding Harney County work for the federal, state or local government in some capacity. Bundy, meanwhile, splits his time between Nevada and Arizona. Other militants reportedly traveled from Utah, Idaho and Texas.
The names of those states — along with Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming — are worth noting as well, as they are home to an increasing fringe of lawmakers attempting to take over national public lands in the West and do with them as they please. Cheered on by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory’s shadowy lobbying group, the American Lands Council, nearly a dozen Western states considered a total of 36 land seizure bills in 2015 that ranged from commissioning studies of the idea to actually requiring the federal government to transfer control of public lands to the states.
While the vast majority of these land takeover initiatives have failed due to fiscal and constitutional hurdles, Ivory’s own 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act was signed into state law demanding that the federal government hand over more than 20 million acres to the state of Utah. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
The consequence of achieving such a transfer has been almost universally recognized as resulting in taking millions of acres of land away from the American people and selling it off to the highest bidder when the states realize they cannot afford the cost to manage it. In other words, America’s public playgrounds and ecological strongholds — the true physical representation of American democracy — would be stripped from us and sold to land barons and private entities in the gas, oil, lumber, mining, power or comparable industries, unlikely ever to be returned.
“In short, the public would suffer from this misguided effort,” University of Utah law professors Bob Keiter and John Ruple wrote in their analysis of the Transfer of Public Lands Act.
The loose thread tying this back to the aggressive brand of land use protest witnessed in the Oregon occupation fiasco is the assertion that private ownership and local control ultimately offer better land management. That was what the Hammonds were allegedly attempting to do when they disregarded federal law and set the illegal fires to manage “invasive species” that grew out of control and eventually sparked this standoff.
But like so many elements in this modern Sagebrush Rebellion, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said the protesters came to town under false pretenses. “These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” Ward said in a statement last Sunday.
Among the many points that the Bundy clan fails to recognize in this situation is that an overwhelming majority of Westerners live in urban areas and genuinely enjoy visiting bird sanctuaries, national forests, parks and similar “tools of tyranny.” Sympathy for menacing cowboys who don’t want to play by the rules is scarce.
According to results from Colorado College’s latest annual Conservation in the West poll, more than two-thirds of voters in six Rocky Mountain states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe federally managed lands belong to all Americans and not to a particular state. What’s more, those surveyed cited proximity and access to public lands among the top three factors in their decision to live in the West and a stunning 95 percent of Western voters have visited federally managed public lands in the last year, typically six times or more.
That translates to a significant driver of local economies, fostering the $646 billion outdoor recreation industry and adding value to local real estate markets. The US Department of Agriculture reports that National parks, wildlife refuges, monuments and other public lands visits contributed $41 billion to the US economy, supporting about 355,000 American jobs in 2014.
So attempting to argue that the federal government has been “tromping on people’s rights and privileges and properties and livelihoods,” as Ammon Bundy’s brother, Ryan, did this week, is plainly misguided. Doing so at gunpoint is dead wrong.
Y’all Qaeda indeed.
Scott Willoughby is the former outdoors editor for the Denver Post.