Political Model of the Oregon’s Ranchers

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The image of sturdy Oregon ranchers grabbing their guns; pushing their cowboy hats down their foreheads; marching in war formations; taking over the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, has fascinated the American public for the better part of a month. To many, the occupation seems pathetic, ridiculous and childish. At first glimpse, one could confuse these tough-looking men for comedians in one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. But you quickly realize that these ranchers carry nothing funny on them. They went and occupied a precious piece of state land because the government dared to send two of their comrades to prison. The ranchers sought revenge against the state, as if the federal authorities were nothing but another gang from a Spaghetti Western.

The story ended three weeks later in a shootout, with one of the occupiers dead and 11 of them arrested. For three weeks, they occupied the land they claimed was theirs, as descendants of those who conquered the West long before the federal government even existed.

Trying to get into the minds of these ranchers, I was completely bewildered by their insanity – a feeling I could only associate with an old news story about Hiroo Onoda, a lieutenant of the Japanese army who, even after WWII ended, continued to fight against his imaginary enemy for a long 29 years. When they found him in 1974 in a jungle in the Philippines, he resisted for six months before he surrendered. But when he finally walked out of the jungle, his mind must have been similar to those of the Oregon ranchers, living in some distant world that no longer exists.

So who are these wild ranchers, occupying  government land, screaming that they would prefer to die free than live under the tyranny of the federal state? In a recent article in the New York Times, R. McGreggor Cawley explains the ranchers’ thinking:

Ryan Payne, an occupation organizer, has portrayed the action as a step toward “returning land to the people.” This phrasing implies that “the people” originally “owned” the federal lands — that the national government has somehow taken those lands away and should return them to the states. It’s a recurring claim from disgruntled Westerners, but it’s not exactly supported by the history of the federal estate. (Native Americans might find the argument easier to advance.) All the federal lands were acquired by the national government through purchase and treaties; the federal government is very much their original “owner.” After all, every state in the union — with the exception of the original 13 and Texas and Hawaii — was carved out of that federal estate in the first place.

By the late 1800s, acts of Congress were reconfiguring what was then called the “public domain” by creating national parks, forests and monuments. The remainder of the land was used primarily for livestock grazing — which, over the years, eventually reached destructive proportions. So in 1929, President Herbert Hoover established a committee to make recommendations for dealing with overgrazing. The committee recommended that the remaining public domain should be given to the states, but with two caveats. First, the federal government would retain ownership of the mineral estate of these lands: Revenue from their ores and fossil fuels would still wind up in the national treasury. Second, any lands not accepted by the states would be placed under active federal management.

The Western states refused the offer, wanting complete ownership and management over the land and its resources. Had they accepted it, America might have avoided the controversies leading to the Oregon occupation. But as it is, the tension over the land has never actually gone away.

“People in the West are continually rebelling against federal decisions on how to manage the land around them — perhaps especially when they are faced with economic difficulty, and see that management as a threat to their livelihoods and way of life. There’s organized protest, like that Nevada road-clearing or the Klamath Falls demonstration. But even beyond that, there are countless individuals engaged in extended, contentious negotiations with federal power over the land around them — including Cliven Bundy’s two-decade refusal to pay grazing fees and Dwight and Steven Hammond’s long-running wrangles with the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon,” Cawley concludes.

The institutional framework surrounding the unresolved question of land ownership is not the only complication, which greatly influences the behavior of the group of ranchers in Oregon. As Beg Geman explains in his article for the National Journal, Their reaction “is part of a wider suite of ac­tions with ties to the far-right, anti government ‘pat­ri­ot move­ment,’ a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of groups that is di­vided over Am­mon Bundy (one of the families involved in Oregon) in ag­gress­ive strategy, with some con­demning it.” In the same article, Amer­ic­an Uni­versity professor Carolyn Gallaher, an ex­pert in mi­li­tia and para­mil­it­ary move­ments in the U.S. and over­seas, notes that Pres­id­ent Obama’s elec­tion touched off an in­crease in activ­ity in far-right groups, in­clud­ing the pat­ri­ot move­ment, though she says that’s just one factor.

More broadly, she said, do­mest­ic ex­trem­ist act­iv­ism is cyc­lic­al. “The re­sur­gence of the ex­treme Right kind of goes in waves. It is dif­fi­cult to know ex­actly which one of those causes is more im­port­ant, but they are def­in­itely all work­ing in con­cert to­geth­er.”

The stan­doff in Ore­gon comes at a time when some GOP can­did­ates are of­fer­ing strong an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic, which Gal­la­her says is part of an evol­u­tion of main­stream polit­ics.

“One thing that I began to notice in the ‘90s was that the extremist antigovernment rhetoric that was be­ing ban­died about in the pat­ri­ot move­ment was start­ing to seep up in­to the main­stream. …I think we’ve hit a nex­us at some point, or a high point, of this kind of rhet­or­ic. But it’s not like it came out of the blue, that Ted Cruz is the first per­son to sug­gest that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is en­gaged in tyranny.”

Gallaher’s comments are a perfect illustration of what might happen to the federal government if Ted Cruz or Donald Trump wins this year’s presidential elections. That is assuming, of course, that they stick to their positions for more than half an hour once they arrive in the White House. But even so, this kind of attitude is widely spread enough that more ranchers may yet reconquer this beautiful land.

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »