Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sat in her office Jan. 20 and drafted a letter to the U.S. attorney general and the director of the FBI. She wrote that negotiations with the “radicals” occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge had failed and insisted on a “swift resolution to this matter.”
Local officials, including Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, made similar demands. On Jan. 26, they got what they asked for.
Authorities, including the FBI, ambushed and arrested Ammon Bundy and others on their way to a meeting in neighboring Grant County. They shot LaVoy Finicum dead. He was not holding a weapon.
Awful. Grasty and Brown knew what might happen should the FBI decide negotiations had failed. Few have forgotten the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge and that “swift” federal action often means people die — in many cases, indiscriminately.
It’s ironic, but the behavior of the judge and the governor goes a long way to make the refuge protesters’ case for them. Blind devotion to federal authority is terribly dangerous to lives and to liberty.
The protest in Harney County will certainly not be the last over federal overreach. Here is hoping people find reason next time, before demanding dangerous federal intervention.
To that end, it is time to dispel a few myths about what is going on.
Myth 1: The armed people at the refuge were threatening violence. You wouldn’t know it by watching TV news, or reading Brown’s hysteric letter, but the refuge wasn’t an armed compound full of violent people. To find that, you needed to drive by the airport in Burns, Ore., where federal agents staged behind fences and a floodlit perimeter, with military vehicles, equipment and weapons.
Yes, the occupants at the refuge were armed and reserved the right to defend themselves. The difference between them and any other citizen claiming their Second Amendment right is they did so from inside public, and previously unoccupied, federal buildings.
They got little credit for doing virtually everything possible to minimize threats and interruptions to the community. They could scarcely have chosen a more remote location.
It was more like an open house than a compound. Locals could, and did, visit to see what the standoff was about. The protesters invited anyone who wanted to have an honest conversation.
For Oregonians, the much larger threat is their high officials writing letters and urging the feds to “swift” action.
Myth 2: Only nutty, right-wing militias from outside would stoop to such tactics. Brown and Grasty must know the protest included state and local residents. Plenty of community people were sympathetic enough to bring food and supplies. The storeroom overflowed, and locally grown beef had to be kept frozen in a snow bank outside for lack of adequate freezer space.
If they had visited, they would have found people there ready to talk calmly, rationally and intelligently about the issues. Tragically they felt there had been too much talking already. Now one of the most calm and rational leaders in the group is dead.
Federal supremacists like to marginalize anyone advocating local control as radical and dangerous. They want you to believe these people are motivated by crazy ideology.
They don’t talk much about history. These issues have been simmering for decades. The Sagebrush Rebellion made headlines in the 1970s and ’80s. There are smart folks stretching back to the nation’s founding who question the legitimacy of federal control over public lands.
Given how economically devastating the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service management has been for rural communities around Oregon, Brown and Grasty should be asking questions, too.
Myth 3: Anyone opposed to federal control of lands hates conservation. The philosophy of the national conservation groups is irrational. They insist the best way to protect public lands is to put unelected bureaucrats headquartered thousands of miles away in charge. That position is hard to fathom. Many conservationists see the value in “buying local” when it comes to food and services. Local is great, except when it comes to government?
It is a bit reminiscent of war. The propaganda department dehumanizes the enemy, branding ranchers and loggers as foolish and blinded by greed. And local citizens as if they are too inept to stand up to them and govern responsibly.
The truth is, there are wise people who care for the environment living right in Harney County. Included among them are cattle ranchers and forestry professionals. Many simply believe management decision-making would be better if it was done much closer to home.
Myth 4: Ranchers just want a free ride. It would be far more accurate to say ranchers want fair, not free. Many Western ranches have a federal grazing allotment attached. Most of the time ranchers acquire the permit when they buy a ranch, though they can also buy and sell them independently. The point is, cattlemen pay big money upfront for a right to the grass.
On top of that, they pay grazing fees annually. Some argue the fees are set way below the market rate to rent private pasture. But they don’t account for ranchers maintaining fences and water systems. These are key differences versus renting private pasture.
In any event, practically no rancher is complaining about the dollars involved.
They object to paying federal agencies who have a long history of treating them like tenant farmers and disrespecting legitimate property rights. Most support the idea of paying fees locally, and getting more accountable range management in return.
Myth 5: The federal government’s prerogative to own and manage the majority of lands in Oregon is beyond question. Now we get to the crux of the matter. Everyone raised in the U.S. is taught federal laws are supreme. What’s more, we learn the U.S. Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter on whether a law is constitutional. Those arguing for state and local control of lands had their day in court. They lost. Case closed.
Not so fast. What we were all taught is nonsense. In fact, the States (capital S) are sovereign and supreme. They have the power — make that the sacred duty — to nullify unconstitutional laws and defend the liberty of citizens.
The kicker is that Brown herself already acknowledged this truth in another context. She signed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana last summer, in complete disregard of federal laws. She didn’t send a letter to Washington begging for federal storm troopers to batter the doors in at pot dispensaries. On the contrary, she determined Oregon’s authority trumps federal dictates and acted accordingly.
What a “radical.” May she and Grasty find that spirit of independence before calling on the FBI to crush the next protest.
Clint Siegner is a director at Money Metals Exchange, a precious metals dealer in Eagle, Idaho. He grew up in a cattle ranching family in Fields, Ore.