Currently we are following the occupation of a federal wildlife refuge by a group of men quoting the Constitution and claiming the land for incarcerated ranchers who do not support the occupation. The real reason for the occupation is to attempt to force the federal government to relinquish all the public lands in the west to private ownership.
The premise is that the land should be owned by the local residents for their benefit. For many years in the rural west, the local ranchers acted as if the land was theirs. They ran their livestock, built reservoirs and roads, and built fences.
At first, the policy of the government was to encourage settlement with the Homestead Act, land grants to railroads along their rights-of-way, and direct sales. As population increased, the policies began changing. The Grazing Service leased land for livestock grazing at very low rates, in effect subsidizing the industry. Many ranchers got rich. They would homestead the water and run their stock on government land. As their land ownership increased by various means, they became the major taxpayers in many rural counties. As the big landowners they tended to control the local governments.
In 1949, President Truman created the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also known as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. The Forest Service policies were similar, cheap timber sales and low cost grazing leases. In addition, anyone could stake a mining claim, prove it out, and own the land.
The BLM and the USFS were understaffed, with many of their employees second or third sons of ranching families who went to the Forestry Departments in the cow colleges. The net effect was to encourage rampant cheating, cutting more timber, running more stock, and damaging the ecosystems.
My father told of the lush grass growing between Grand Junction and Delta, Colorado when he was young. The grass is gone, the area is desolate. There is more sagebrush today than before the land was settled. Sagebrush is resistant to trampling. The deep, steep walled gullies all over the west are recent, caused by erosion caused by the loss of root systems that held the soil.
Today all that has changed. The BLM and the Forest Service actively manage the lands. The populations are much larger, with much of the rural west not so rural. Ranchers can no longer treat public lands as their own. Many of them refuse to accept the changes, and the Malheur occupation is the result.
The occupiers are the spear point of a movement of disenchanted mostly rural people who resent governmental control of land they tend to see as their birthright. The rural people are fiercely independent. They do not like cities, don’t want others telling them what to do, and want to use the grass and timber that surrounds them. They are usually very conservative politically.
There are not many ways to make a living in those areas. The land is either owned by a few ranchers or the government. There are government jobs with the BLM or the Forest Service, schools, county road maintenance, the state highway department, or low paying service and retail jobs in town. Most of the young people move away.
I am one of the ones who moved away. I was a town kid, but the same conditions applied to me. The best job I had before I left was with the National Park Service, and was seasonal, as many of the trade related jobs are. I worked for the Park Service, went to school and the army, returned to go to school at the local Junior College, transferred to a University in the city, and return only for visits. That is the story for much of my high school class, even with growing Grand Junction just down the road.
In the rural west that is the story. Locals who just scrape along, the ranchers, and all that beautiful government land surrounding them. They won’t or can’t make it in the city and feel trapped in a situation beyond their control. Some of them turn to hard line right-wing politics facilitated by online websites. In addition, almost every television set is tuned to sports or Fox News.
The Feds have yet to come up with a consistent policy to deal with militants
like the Bundys and their allies. They must deal with the lawlessness, but do not want a situation like Ruby Ridge or Waco. Thus they do nothing, which encourages the militias, or precipitate a violent confrontation with loss of life. The dilemma is how to deal with an armed insurrection without gunfire. Many of the rebels are sworn to die fighting. Must that happen? Letting the nuts go is unacceptable. Letting them run loose while occupying government land and trying to arrest them when they leave has led to killing. My thought is to lay siege and starve them out. They failed at Waco when the Feds lost patience. Lots of innocent lives were lost. The problem is that the law enforcement agencies tend to lack patience.
Maybe the solution is to have an interagency federal siege team, trained to deal with armed standoffs. They have their government salaries while the insurrectionists can be isolated from their outside support. No power, no food, no water, they won’t last long. Outside militants may try to lift the siege, but the government has the resources to surround and isolate them as well. Will there be shooting? Probably, as many of the militants are glory seekers, willing to be martyrs. When the occupations all fail, the movements will lose their motivation. Maybe. As long as the militants are able to arm themselves, these occupations will probably continue. As we saw, road stops do not work.