BURNS, Ore. (CN) – Ammon Bundy and his followers showed no signs of leaving the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, as their armed occupation of the federal facility stretched into its eighth day.
Bundy and an estimated two dozen followers took over unoccupied federal offices at the refuge after splitting off from a peaceful protest on Jan. 3 over the jailing of local ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven for setting fires on their property.
Heavily armed supporters arrived on Saturday morning, carrying rifles and wearing bulletproof vests. The group – who said they were members of the Pacific Patriots Network – stayed for several hours before leaving, after Bundy reportedly told them, “We don’t need you.”
At a community meeting on Jan. 6, an overwhelming majority of the estimated 400 Harney County residents in attendance told Sheriff David Ward they wanted him to send a similar message to Bundy.
The next day, Ward did just that – and Bundy rejected Ward’s bid to escort him and his followers peacefully to the state line.
Ward met with Ammon Bundy on Thursday evening, at a remote intersection near the refuge.
It was a scene that could have come straight from a spaghetti western. Dry, frigid air hung over the snowy valley as the two men approached each other.
“I think that there are some positives that could come out of this,” Ward told Bundy. “And I think that the people of the county are excited about working out issues that come from the government overreaching. But before this thing turns into something negative, which would ruin all of that, I think we need to find a peaceful resolution to help you guys get out of here.”
The two men shook hands and Bundy walked to his Hummer. He opened the passenger door, then turned back to Ward.
“I’m not afraid to go out of the state,” Bundy said. “I don’t need an escort.”
Ward told reporters he wanted to give Bundy a serious chance to leave peacefully. But he said he didn’t think that’s what Bundy wanted.
“I don’t feel like they think they’re getting enough attention yet,” Ward said.
Later, Bundy told reporters he wouldn’t leave until the federal government complied with one of his original demands: to hand the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over to either the county or to private owners.
From the beginning, Bundy has denied the federal government’s right to own any land at all. He says the refuge should be in the hands of locals who can better manage the land than the federal government.
“It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the miner back to mining and the rancher back to ranching,” Bundy told reporters.
In an interview, Bundy told Courthouse News that his plan is in motion.
“It is already happening,” Bundy said. “It’s not ‘take over the refuge,’ it’s the community beginning to take over their rights again and transfers of land starting to happen. It’s getting people back to using the land like their forefathers did. Like they’ve been doing for over a hundred years.”
That rhetoric represents a shift in public relations strategy on Bundy’s part. The recurring theme at Wednesday’s community meeting was that while locals appreciated Bundy for bringing national attention to the economic struggles they face, they wanted to fight their own battles.
“I can’t say I don’t appreciate what they done, getting the ball rolling,” local rancher Rodney Johnson said at the meeting. “But they need to go and let us finish it. I will go down there with anybody who wants to and let them know that they done their job and we can take it from here.”
Since then, Bundy has shifted the tone of his morning press conferences. Originally, he promised to leave if the locals said they wanted him to go. But now he says he will leave only when he deems them ready to take over the work he says he started.
“We are showing our love for our neighbor,” Bundy said at Friday’s press conference. “Each of us has a choice to make when we see our neighbor in distress. We saw a neighbor that was being abused. And we also saw that what is happening to them is only a symptom of a greater problem. The choice we faced was whether to go home and let what happened to the Hammonds happen to other people or to stay and fight because we love our neighbor.”
He added, “This community has brought us food and warmth and comfort. But most importantly, they have brought us their desire to stand on their own. Many of you have asked how long this will go. And we say to you, not a minute too early. Until the people can stand on their own and begin to fight this fight without the fear and intimidation, without the chains that are upon them. Until they can do that, we will be here for them.”
And he says that could take a while.
“It’s already happening, but it could take weeks or months,” Bundy told Courthouse News. “I don’t see it taking any longer than a year.”
Barrett Kaiser, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities – a public lands watchdog group based in Colorado – said Bundy is taking advantage of the situation to advance his political ideals.
“This isn’t about loving your neighbor,” Kaiser said. “This is about furthering a right-wing extremist agenda.”
Bundy claims federal control allows people in Washington, D.C. to make decisions about land practices they know nothing about. And he says that results in unfair situations like the resentencing of the Hammonds and the subjective denial of grazing permits.
“It’s a real danger,” Bundy told Courthouse News. “With no republic form of government, they’re breaking the law by being there. Even if we said that was okay, the problem is that there is no proper local redress. A [Bureau of Land Management] manager can just say, ‘I don’t like you,” and not give a permit.”
John Lamborn, who has practiced both civil law and criminal defense in Burns for over 20 years, attributed Bundy’s argument to a “magical interpretation of the Constitution.”
“It’s like they think if we don’t like a law, then we’re going to declare it null and void,” Lamborn said.
As an example, Lamborn described a former client who refused to pay for his legal services by returning Lamborn’s bill, unopened, stamped with the words “refused without dishonor” and citing an obscure part of the Uniform Commercial Code. The client’s wife eventually paid the bill, Lamborn said.
“There is a growing population of people in this country who, for whatever reason, only want to think about an inch at a time,” Lamborn said.
Kaiser called Bundy a dangerous figure and said letting him go home without prosecuting him would only encourage extremists to break the law.
“They shouldn’t just go home,” Kaiser said. “They should go to jail. You shouldn’t be allowed to exploit a ranching family, hijack an entire community. You shouldn’t be able to steal a refuge. Threaten violence in a very self-aggrandizing idea of what the Constitution means.”
Kaiser said the Bundys and their followers were emboldened by the lack of consequences from the 2014 showdown at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch.
There, Cliven Bundy – Ammon’s father – claimed he didn’t have to pay over $1 million in fees for grazing his cattle on public land. He has said that he doesn’t recognize “that the federal government even exists.”
“What exactly has happened since the Bundys pulled this stunt last time at their ranch? Absolutely nothing,” Kaiser said. “To add to that, they owe me, and you, and you, and you a million dollars in taxpayer money. We all want a peaceful resolution to this. Of course we do. But they shouldn’t just go home. They need to be charged and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This cannot be allowed to happen in the United States of America.”
And Kaiser questioned the wisdom of broadcasting Bundy’s message.
“The more we enable this, the more we give them a gigantic microphone across the country and the world, the more they will do this,” he said. “And this is dangerous. This mentality is very dangerous.”
When Bundy first arrived in town, he circulated a petition accusing Sheriff Ward of shirking his duty by refusing to set up a safe haven for the Hammonds and claiming Ward, as the “supreme authority” within Harney County, had the ability to interfere with the federal prosecution of the Hammonds.
Those accusations echo the ideology of the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association, a right-wing group whose website says it was founded to “advance the principle that sheriffs must resist the government.” The group is led by former Sheriff Richard Mack, a Bundy supporter who was present at the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch.
“They’ve come to the conclusion that the sheriff is a magical legal unicorn with the power to declare the law that the Hammonds were being prosecuted under in the federal context, to declare that law null and void,” Lamborn said. “We don’t like it so it’s in violation of the Constitution somehow.”
Bundy defended his refusal to comply with Ward’s request that he leave, despite his claim that Ward was “the highest law of the land.” He told reporters that was because “we petitioned him to protect these people and he ignored the people’s petition.”
Jessica Goad, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said these kinds of pseudo-legal theories are a backbone of the extremist right-wing land transfer movement, which seeks to hand federally owned land to states and local governments.
Goad said the land transfer movement is the functional, active wing of a group of people led by conspiracy theorists and discredited academics.
She said the Bundys are part of “an aggressive anti-government movement that will grow more potent if reasonable Americans don’t take action.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is part of the 53 percent of Oregon owned by the federal government.
The refuge is a vital stop on the migration path for many bird species.
Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the 187,000-acre refuge was created at a time when bird populations across North America had been largely decimated by plume hunters.
The hunters’ insatiable appetite for the long white feathers of the egret wiped out that population on Malheur Lake before the refuge was established. It took decades for the egret’s numbers to rebound.
On any given year, the refuge is a stop for between 5 and 66 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating populations of waterfowl. It hosts up to 77 percent of the Great Basin populations of some bird species.
“That bird refuge is kind of like sacred ground for us,” said Janet Bailey, a fourth generation Harney County resident. “We’re on the migratory bird path and we love that. We get to live in the most beautiful place on this lovely planet and the tourists come and feed our economy, too. That refuge is important for birds and it’s important for us.”
In a small town where many businesses are only open half the year, every tourist event holds a magnified importance.
The annual Migratory Bird Festival, held on the second weekend of April, marks the beginning of the tourist season in the area. The Chamber of Commerce said Harney County hosts an average of 200 tourists during the three-day festival.
Lamborn said Bundy and his group were jeopardizing that important economic event.
“In 100 days, all this snow is going to melt and the tourists will arrive for the Migratory Bird Festival,” Lamborn said. “But if they’re still out there waving a bunch of guns around, nobody’s coming.”
Bundy said in an interview that his plan would protect the birds and other wildlife.
“The best management is when people are using it,” he told Courthouse News.
Bundy, a Mormon, said the idea goes back to the Biblical concept that humans are charged with the responsibility of being stewards of the land.
“No use is misuse,” Bundy said, a phrase that is often repeated around here both by Bundy militia members and local citizens who believe that birds and other wildlife prefer land owned by private owners to refuge land managed by the government. They claim grazing creates better habitat than leaving the land alone.
“Part of the ecosystem is humans,” Bundy told Courthouse News.
Harney County had a booming economy in the 1950s and 1960s. But in 1990, the placement of the spotted owl on the endangered species list killed logging in Malheur National Forest and shut down the county’s largest employer – the Edward Hines Lumber Company.
Ranchers in the area see their livelihood as being next on the chopping block and have worked to prevent the addition of the greater sage grouse on the endangered species list.
One man who was camped out at the refuge with Bundy said his family has lived in the area for three generations but refused to give his name, citing potential government reprisal. He said his community lives under the pressure of reduced economic opportunity.
“They’ve taken our logging industry, they’ve taken our mining industry, and now they’re coming for our cows,” he said.
Lamborn said the community fought hard to keep ranching alive.
“A lot of work went into talking the government out of identifying the sage grouse as an endangered species and thereby freezing ranching operations,” Lamborn said. “I mean, the sage grouse is a little critter that runs around the ground cover. So now if you can’t hay your ground because you’re worried about sage grouse habitat, you might as well just shut us down.”
Bundy told Courthouse News that his plan was the only answer for the local economy.
“The federal government has come down and placed codes and regulations and this would require them to stop enforcing that,” Bundy said. “The community understands that this is the only way they’re going to get their economy going again and they understand the feds don’t have the right to enforce their codes here.”
Some people question how the county could possibly cover all the costs of running the refuge.
Kaiser pointed out that if the refuge were transferred to local ownership, the county would be responsible for shouldering the cost of firefighting and the cleanup of the dozens of abandoned mines in the area.
“That’s the dirty little secret of this movement,” Kaiser said. “They don’t know how to pay for it.”
Bundy has been silent about the mechanism under which he plans to push the government to convey the refuge land to the county. But it’s unlikely that armed protesters could force it to happen.
Erin Curtis, deputy spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, said moving the refuge from federal ownership into county hands might theoretically be possible through an act of Congress, a sale or a land exchange.
But negotiating at gunpoint does not fall on that list.
“Pointing a gun in somebody’s face is not how you form a contract,” Lamborn said. “If you have a gun stuck in my face and you tell me, ‘I have a wrist watch for sale and you’re going to buy it, and I go, ‘Yes sir’ and I give you $50, was that a contract? No, because it was coerced.”
It’s also unclear whether the abundant water rights attached to the refuge would go with any land conveyance, even if such a transaction were possible.
Harney County is in the fifth year of a historic drought. Gov. Kate Brown extended emergency drought assistance to the county in April, and the Oregon Water Resources Department has issued a moratorium on new groundwater permits in Harney County.
This sparked more local outrage against the government and highlighted a local motto: “Whiskey’s for drinking. Water’s for fighting.”
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge stands in stark contrast to that reality. With three large lakes and 40,000 acres of wetlands, it’s an uncommonly damp part of the vast arid Klamath Basin. Sage- and juniper-filled rangeland surround it on all sides. Fifty miles south, Steens Mountain catches the last of the rain clouds. In its shadow, a mere seven inches of rain falls over the hardpan playa of the Alvord Desert each year.
“If all the sudden Bundy got his way and was able to deed off property to whoever he was going to deed off property to, what do you suppose was going to happen to those water rights?” Lamborn said. “Do you suppose the Oregon Water Resources Department is going to be bound by a coercive piece of nonsense paper generated by people who couldn’t hire a lawyer to save their lives? No.”
Bundy won’t address that level of detail. In the interview, he stuck to more overarching ideas about the federal government.
“Originally, we were structured where individuals own land and the government protects that ownership,” Bundy said. “The people never gave authority to the federal government to own property.”
He said the Constitution guarantees that the federal government will only hold land under very narrow circumstances.
“If the federal government wants to control land within a state, they have to get permission or purchase it. And they can only use it for forts, magazines, arsenals and dock yards,” Bundy said. “All this land was mostly acquired unconstitutionally.”
Meanwhile, the Northern Paiute – whose ancestors have roamed the Klamath Basin for at least 10,000 years – say that if the land was transferred to anybody, it should be them.
“The protestors have no claim to this land,” said Burns Paiute Tribal Chair Charlotte Rodrique. “It belongs to the native people who continue to live here. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an important place for us. We have no sympathy for those who are trying to take the land from its rightful owners.”
Law enforcement continued to keep a low profile over the weekend.
Kaiser said someone had to stand up to the Bundys.
“Ultimately what they are doing is bullying us,” Kaiser said. “They are bullying the American people and they are bullying this community.”
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