Anyone who’s ever driven the rugged expanse of southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho and northern Nevada knows it’s a lonely place, where only rugged humans survive. This is the true West, romanticized in its emptiness and decorated by miles of sagebrush and lava rock, dotted by mountain ranges in the distant horizon. Ranchers stubbornly work this unpopulated piece of Earth, and take great pride in the freedoms they enjoy because of the limited populace.
And really, the only other humans who many of these ranchers come into contact with in this remote area are outdoorsmen (and women): kayakers running the remote sections of the Bruneau, Jarbidge and Owyhee Rivers, backcountry skiers and snowboarders finding empty, secluded lines in the nearby Steen Mountains. It is a place where the rugged individual can do as he or she pleases. And sometimes, that’s problematic.
With the news that armed “militia men” had seized control of a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, I was reminded again that this beautifully empty region can be an oddly dangerous place.
The group, led by Ammon Bundy—the son of a prominent rancher in the area—is protesting the imprisonment of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven. The two were found guilty of arson in the early 2000’s after they deliberately torched an area of public land near their home to cover up a gruesome act of poaching where witnesses say the two slaughtered a herd of deer and left others “limping and running from the scene,” wrote federal prosecutor Bill J. Williams. The militia is demanding their sentences be nullified.
The Hammonds claim they set the fire to stop invasive species from taking over their own land. The father already served three months and the son a year, but a federal judge ruled the sentence was too light for the crime and they were sentenced to five more years and are set to report to prison on Monday.
These acts of anti-federalism are nothing new to the region. Bundy’s father, Cliven, drew national attention last year after a standoff with federal authorities over a BLM dispute. This is the same region where Claude Dallas killed a pair of Fish and Wildlife officers in 1981 in Idaho’s Owyhee County over a poaching dispute (he said he acted in self defense after the officers drew on him). He eluded capture for 15 months, was sentenced to prison where he escaped the Idaho State Penitentiary, hiding out for nearly a year before being captured. He was harbored by sympathetic anti-government friends throughout Idaho and Nevada during both escapades, which helped him stay on the lam longer.
The ironic part of this whole thing is that this armed militia occupying the federal building on the wildlife refuge doesn’t want to be called terrorists. But that’s exactly what they are: domestic terrorists, in the same grouping as the men who bombed the Oklahoma Federal building in 1995 or the group that stood off with Federal officials at Ruby Ridge in Northern Idaho in 1992. These particular individuals would fight fiercely to protect their right to bear arms so if in the unlikely case a terrorist or foreign threat would happen to invade their strategically innocuous region, they’d be ready. Yet they take over a government building, stating they won’t leave until their demands are met, armed to the teeth, ready to go down in a blaze while calling for other like-minded individuals to help. So what they’re doing is no different than a middle-Eastern terrorist taking over an airplane and making demands to international governments while putting civilians in danger.
It is a hot topic, in a very heated time when gun laws are under serious scrutiny, mass shootings are on the rise and fear and mistrust reign.
But to me, it’s very simple: even with all the laws (still minimal compared to many countries), we live in one of the most free places on Earth, where we can more or less do as we please to make a living as long as it doesn’t hurt others. Need more irony? Many of these militiamen have ties to ranchers, who enjoy the open grazing laws in the West where their cattle can roam government land to feed.
The men shouldn’t have set fire to the land, shouldn’t have poached the deer, it’s really as simple as that. They did something illegal and they have to pay for it. And unfortunately, this beautiful, untamed country is now getting press for all the wrong reasons.