September 6, 2016 – The long-awaited trial for Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, and six other militants who led the 40-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge begins on Wednesday in Portland, Oregon. The trial will bring some closure to the central Oregon town of Burns where the armed occupiers disrupted daily life and terrorized residents.
During the trial, we expect that the Bundy family and their outlandish opinions on American democracy will be on full display. What shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle is that Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, and their father Cliven (who will stand trial in February 2017 for leading a separate armed standoff with government employees) have become primary players in a floundering political effort to seize public lands owned by all Americans.
As the trial unfolds over the coming weeks, here are four facts to keep in mind:
- The Bundy family and followers are motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution and American public lands
- The Bundy militants are supported by elected officials who share their goals of seizing public lands from the American people
- Anti–public lands activists have endangered public employees through direct threats and dangerous rhetoric
- The Bundy family and their followers do not speak for the large majority of Westerners
Read on to learn what the Bundy trial means for America’s public lands.
1) The Bundy family and their followers are motivated by an anti-public land ideology based in a fundamental misunderstanding of American government and public lands
The Bundys do not think public lands or the American government exist. As Cliven Bundy explained in 2014: “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” His son, Ammon, told a reporter during the early days of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation that “we’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, really. Their lands and their resources have been taken from them.”
Of course, the U.S. government does exist and there is a long, well-documented history of public lands in the United States, and a strong legal foundation for their existence. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1840 that the U.S. government’s authority over public lands was “without limitation.” Upon entering the Union, nearly every Western state agreed to “Enabling Acts,” which clearly state that the right and title to U.S. public lands would remain with all Americans. For example, the Nevada enabling act reads:
“That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States…”
2) The Bundys and fellow militants are supported by elected officials who share their goals to seize public lands and close them off from public access
There has been a political effort in recent years—led by Utah State Representative Ken Ivory—to force the U.S. government to dispose of public lands, including wildlife refuges, national forests, and national monuments into state and private hands. Rep. Ivory also founded the American Lands Council, which advocates on behalf of Ivory’s political agenda. In explaining the effort, Ken Ivory has said:
“…We are in the Second Great Revolution, and it’s a revolution of ideologies. But the battle is not being fought with bombs and with bullets. It’s being fought with delta smelt. It’s being fought with sage grouse… It’s being fought with trees.”
The Bundys are the most prominent foot soldiers in Ivory’s “revolution.” The Utah state rep has worked to build inroads with anti-government and extremist groups. Ivory appears with influencers in the right-wing echo chamber, such as on Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze,” David Barton’s “Wall Builders,” and Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory talk radio show. Rep. Ivory has also met with groups like Montana’s Sanders Natural Resources Council, an organization which has been directly linked to the Militia of Montana.
Ammon Bundy and his attorneys are certainly listening. They evoked Rep. Ivory and the state of Utah in a motion to dismiss the case against Bundy, arguing that the courts must resolve whether public lands are constitutional before prosecuting him.
Rep. Ivory has also gained traction with conservative Republicans. The 2016 Republican Party Platform calls for disposing of U.S. public lands. And some members of Congress have introduced legislation to fulfil the goals of the Bundy family and Rep. Ivory. For example, in July U.S. Representatives Paul Gosar (AZ), Scott Tipton (CO), Mark Amodei (NV), and others introduce the HEARD Act, with the aim of privatizing hundreds of thousands of acres of American public lands.
3) Anti-public lands activists have endangered public employees and lands managers through incendiary rhetoric and direct threats
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The occupations at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Bundy Ranch are just two of multiple incidents across the West where armed extremists targeted public lands and public employees. In April 2015 militants occupied the Sugar Pine Mine in southern Oregon and in August 2015 militia groups occupied Montana’s White Hope Mine. In both incidents, militants armed with assault rifles threatened land managers who were doing their jobs as public employees.
More recently, a Utah man made news for trying to detonate a pipe bomb in a remote BLM cabin. William Keebler, who was arrested by undercover FBI agents, was the leader of a citizen militia group and associated with at least one member of the occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, LaVoy Finicum, who lost his life trying to pull a weapon on arresting officers.
A coalition of retired land managers laid out the troubling, albeit all too common problem in a letter to Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva in advance of a congressional forum on anti-government extremism and public lands. The former public servants wrote:
“Unfortunately, there has been a long history of violence against federal employees over the past few decades… Some employees may not even feel safe sitting at their desks in federal office buildings due to actions of anti-government extremists.”
4) The Bundys, their followers, and the elected officials promoting the Bundy agenda do not speak for the large majority of Westerners
Poll after poll shows that most people who live in the West do not want to see public lands disposed of. According to public opinion research conducted earlier this year by bipartisan pollsters, a strong majority of Westerners (60 percent) are against selling public lands to reduce the budget deficit; only 26 percent of Westerners are in favor of land sales. Similarly, 58 percent of Western voters are opposed to giving states control over U.S. public lands like national forests and wildlife refuges.
The Bundy family’s tactics were always destined to fail, both in the legal arena and the arena of public opinion, but the more mainstream political efforts are also floundering. Utah Representative Ken Ivory has lost clout in recent months as a series of stories raised ethical concerns about the lawmaker, who has continued to blur the lines between elected official and advocate while financially benefiting from the issue.
At the same time, legislative attempts to seize public lands are failing to gain traction. In fact, only one out of 16 public land seizure bills passed in Western legislatures outside Utah during 2016. These policy ideas have been effectively restricted to the state of Utah, which remains the only Western state actively working to takeover American-owned lands.
This is all good news. The sooner we move beyond misguided policy proposals on public lands, the sooner we can get to work developing solutions that energize rural economies, ensure public access to public lands, and make sure public lands policy protects land, water, and resources, while providing an economic engine to the West.
The Center for Western Priorities is a conservation policy and advocacy organization focused on land and energy issues across the American West. www.westernpriorities.org