For almost a month now, we have been hearing about gun wielding activists occupying an animal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. It is easy to dismiss these self-proclaimed militiamen as right-wing extremists with absurd justifications for initiating a government standoff. But one question that should be running through your mind is, “why are they still out there?”
The simple answer as to why the government has not removed the protestors from the seized federal property is rather simple: memories of Waco and Ruby Ridge, both where federal officials tried to intervene in an armed protest with deadly results, are still too fresh. In Oregon, as of January 23, however, there has only been one arrest of a man who is accused of driving a stolen government truck.
Reporters from all major news outlets have also been camped out in snowy fields to witness the spectacle as well as to attend daily press conferences for updates from the protestors about their unwavering aims. These conferences not only give the militiamen, hailing from all across the West, the opportunity to interact with the locals, but also to give frequent updates on fragile negotiations with government officials.
The occupation began on January 2 to rally support for the Hammonds, a father and son sentenced to five years in prison for setting fires on their land that then spread to federal property. What began as a demonstration of support and frustration quickly grew into an ideological struggle for the militiamen.
Many in the West share similar sentiments with the protestors’ message: the seemingly arbitrary federal control of lands leads to the alienation of small rural towns. These cries of misuse of federal oversight echo the preaching of the wise use movement from 30 years ago.
The wise use movement was the brainchild of Ron Arnold as described in his mid-1980s publication, the “Wise Use Agenda.” The agenda defined the guidelines of a loosely aligned coalition of activist groups across the West promoting the expansion of private property rights.
While resource extraction firms such as Exxon/Mobile, British Petroleum, and Chevron are prominent backers of wise use groups, other branches advocate that private citizens living in rural areas are the most negatively affected by environmental regulations.
By the 1990’s, wise use advocates became very close to the political elite. A number of environmental reforms, including the Endangered Species Act, were passed after considerable lobbying efforts from movement supporters.
Today, wise use supporters represent the ideas of a much smaller population. That is not to say, however, that many locals agree with the protest. “In a way, it’s really a gift to us,” says Iowa conservationist Gina Knudson. Nobody was paying attention to this before. Now, given the fact that the [occupiers] don’t get a lot of sympathy from folks out here, it’s forcing us to have a conversation of, ‘What would we do that’s smarter than that?’”
The conversation in Oregon today centers mainly around efforts to end the confrontation but to continue the conversation. Daily negotiations break down, however, because Ammon Bundy, a leader of the militia, will not recognize the FBI’s negotiation standing, refusing to negotiate unless the local sheriff deputizes the FBI agents.
Once the standoff ends, either through negotiations or government forces taking the refuge back, the intentions of holding the land hostage need to be considered. “Ammon Bundy and his bullyboys aren’t trying to free federal lands, but to hold them hostage,” comments Ursula Le Guin, a fiction writer. “I can’t go to the Malheur refuge now, though as a citizen of the United States, I own it and have the freedom of it. That’s what public land is: land that belongs to the public—me, you, every law-abiding American. The people it doesn’t belong to and who don’t belong there are those who grabbed it by force of arms, flaunting their contempt for the local citizens.”
The lands do belong to the people, but the usage of land and the holding hostage of it are very different in the eyes of the law. Wise use activists cloud any moral justifications for their actions when they are so heavily backed by resource extraction firms interested in making a profit.