I have thought of writing this post for about ten days now, but have been hesitant because there are several nuances surrounding the story that make it less cleancut, less black-and-white than most things I write about. I nearly decided not to address this situation at all, but it kept nagging at me. So today I did my homework (nearly 3 hours worth, I might add) and, while I still see some grey areas, I think it needs to be discussed and I think I need to take a position. The situation I am referring to is that of the ranchers calling themselves a militia who are illegally occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon. I suppose I just made my position clear, but let us take a look at the entire situation.
In case any are not aware yet, the Malheur Refuge was established in 1908 by then President Theodore Roosevelt to provide a safe haven for waterfowl and migratory birds. It occupies 187,757 acres (293 square miles) of land in Southeastern Oregon.
This is reportedly an event whose roots go all the way back to 1993, or perhaps even earlier. Some of you may remember the situation of Cliven Bundy in Nevada in early 2014. Mr. Bundy had been grazing his cattle on federal lands since 1993 with no permit to do so. Initially he had applied for and been issued a permit, but when said permit came up for renewal in 1993, he refused to pay the annual fee and his permit was revoked. Nonetheless, rancher Bundy continued to graze his cattle. In 2014 (and I cannot understand why they waited twenty years) Bundy’s cattle were impounded by the USBLM (United States Bureau of Land Management) allegedly to settle the more than $1 million debt Mr. Bundy owes to the federal government and thus to the citizens of the U.S., and he was arrested.
Fast forward to 2001 when father and son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose land abuts the Malheur Refuge, set fire to the federal lands. Witnesses, including a nephew of Hammond, confirmed that the fire was intentionally set. The nephew testified that he was told to start lighting matches and “light the whole countryside on fire”! The other witnesses were hunters who claimed to have seen the Hammonds slaughter an entire herd of deer. Within two hours of reporting their sighting, the fire was started and burned through the area in which the hunters had been encamped. The Hammonds were both convicted of arson of federal lands, which carries a minimum 5-year sentence. For whatever reason, the judge ultimately imposed much lesser sentences (12 months for the father, 3 months for the son). The government appealed the sentence, but as is to be expected, things dragged along … until …
… 2006, when once again the Hammonds are in court, charged with arson of federal lands. While there was no doubt that the 2001 case was arson, the 2006 case is a little less cut and dried. Apparently, the Hammonds were burning off some brush and the fire got out of control, burning federal lands. A couple of problems with this allegation are that they were doing so under the cover of night and without having notified the BLM firefighters, four of whom were nearly entrapped by the fire. So, while intent may be questionable, the implication is that yes, there was wrongdoing on the part of the Hammonds. Two days into the investigation of the 2006 fire, the Hammonds reportedly threatened a BLM employee with arson if he didn’t “stop the investigation”.
In the interim, the Hammonds were arrested for destroying a fence marking the border between their land and federal land, so they could illegally graze their cattle on federal lands. They were also arrested more than once for threats of violence against BLM employees. Nice people, huh?
Now returning to present day. The Hammonds were convicted and sentenced to five (5) years imprisonment in 2015. Their sentences were to start in January 2016. Which brings us to the occupation of the Malheur Refuge. A rally was held in a nearby town on January 2nd to protest what was called an unjust sentence and to raise funds for their legal fees. After the rally, the Bundy clan (you were wondering where they came into this picture, weren’t you?) led a small group of heavily armed protestors to the Malheur Refuge with the intent to occupy the main building. There is debate about the number of armed people who occupied the refuge on January 2nd … they claim 150, but one eyewitness report estimates 6-12, while another puts the number at 20-25. Either way, a small group, relatively speaking.
The protestors, who call themselves militia, but I refuse to use that term, as it indicates some level of organization and authenticity that isn’t in evidence, have a list of demands that include:
1. “Return” of federal lands to private interests (presumably the ranchers themselves)
2. More lenient sentences for the Hammonds
3. Inquiry into the alleged taking of ranchers land by government agencies
They say they are prepared to “kill and be killed” to have these demands met. An invitation, perhaps?
The government response to the occupation has been notably low-key. Most speculation is that they do not want this to result in a situation comparable to Waco (1993) or Ruby Ridge (1992). To date, there are no injuries reported. The protestors did use a piece of government equipment to destroy a fence between the federal lands and another rancher’s property, but the other rancher claimed he did not give them permission to do so, and he promptly rebuilt the fence! The media, on the other hand, although not saying much for the past week, initially tried very hard to stir the pot of public sentiment by asking the public if the government response would have been as low-key if these protestors had been African-Americans, and by attempting to define the protestors as “terrorists”. Surprisingly, neither ploy garnered a lot of attention and both of those tangents seem to have died, thankfully.
Now for the take on this whole thing. There are certainly some extenuating circumstances. The 2006 fire may not have been intentional, though it still has certain suspicious elements. While it is undeniable that the Hammonds 2015 sentencing is just regarding the 2001 arson, it was a long time coming. On the other side of the coin, neither the Hammonds nor the Bundys are exactly model citizens, but that in and of itself does not constitute a crime. And there is some question, which I cannot address here because I do not have sufficient information, about Hammond’s ancestral claim to the disputed land on which the refuge is situated. However, all that said, there is a right way and a wrong way to protest against the government. These people, calling themselves a militia are truly nothing more than a bunch of thugs, carrying their legal assault-type weapons, and they are not going about it the right way, are not within the bounds of the law, and do not deserve, in this manner, to have their voices heard. Even the American Cattleman’s Association, who do support their cause, do not support their methods. Interestingly, it appears that some of them are getting bored with the whole thing and going home to their families, their ranches, their lives. We can only hope that within the next few days there is nobody left but the Bundy clan and they are going to look pretty darned foolish sitting there all by themselves. That is, at least, how I hope it comes out. Whether you believe they have some valid points or not, threats of violence, particularly against the federal government and thus against us all, are definitely not the proper way to accomplish their goals. No, they are not terrorists, but just a bunch of under-educated fools who apparently do not know the expression by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “the pen is mightier than the sword”.