Nov. 15, 2016 – William G Robbins is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History, Oregon State University

When a self-styled group of armed patriots took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters thirty-five miles south of Burns, Oregon in January 2016, they set off a firestorm of controversy in the national media. The militants challenged federal management of the land and demanded that ownership be turned over to Harney County, home to the refuge. Following a stand-off that lasted several weeks, the group surrendered at a highway blockade as they were traveling to a meeting. The occupiers were charged with wide-ranging federal crimes, including conspiracy. Some of those arrested had participated in a confrontation with federal agents two years earlier at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, because Bundy had refused to pay fees to graze cattle on federal lands. After a month-long federal trial in Portland for seven of the defendants, jurors shocked the public when they acquitted the militants of conspiracy charges.

The protesters had traveled to Burns when Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ordered Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven to complete their court ordered sentences for setting fire to federal grazing lands. The radical activists — none of them residents of Harney County — knew virtually nothing about the county, which at 10,228-square-miles, is one of the largest in the United States and twice the size of the State of Connecticut. A place of few people and vast open spaces, the federal government owns and manages about 70 percent of the land in the county. Burns, the county seat, is home to ranching and farming people and a sizable number of federal and state agency employees.

The radicals were ignorant of the 130 year history of livestock grazing in the region, Harney’s huge cattle empires, or President Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1908. They also knew nothing of the constitutional and legal grounding of federal land ownership. What captured the media’s attention, however, were their defiant, aggressive anti-government demands to restore a past that never existed. Many of the protestors carried pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution, with some of them spouting arcane and discredited interpretations of the nation’s founding document. The issues they were protesting echoed earlier dissenters who wanted to privatize the federal estate in the American West. The radical’s insistence that Harney County should control and own all federal lands within its boundaries reflected the protests of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, right-wing activists who advocated greater control or outright privatization of federal lands.

The media gave the Malheur occupants lots of press, especially the extreme anti-government views of Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon, who argued that the federal government should turn over control of the refuge to Harney County officials. Peter Walker, a University of Oregon geographer who interviewed occupiers, reported that the group “intended to make Harney County the first ‘constitutional’ county in America.” Sixty-eight year old Neil Wampler, an occupier, told interviewer Hal Herring, “When our founders created the states out of territories, 95 percent of it was meant to be private land.” During the opening arguments of the trial of seven defendants in Portland in September 2016, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, told jurors, “the federal government didn’t have the right to own” the 187,000 Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

The history of the Malheur refuge and Harney County diverges sharply from the occupiers’ pronouncements. The Bundy group was unaware of the grasping, dictatorial, and arbitrary cattle barons who dominated the county from the 1870s until the Great Depression. Beginning with the U.S. Army’s removal of the Northern Paiute people to sub-marginal locations during the late 1860s, the county has been the setting for struggles over the control of land and water, with the California-funded French-Glenn Livestock Company emerging as the largest of them all. Contrary to the occupiers’ characterizations of a heavy-handed federal government, large ranch owners monopolized waterways (and thereby the best grazing land) from the 1870s until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Besides herding cattle, the French-Glenn owners and their successors attempted—unsuccessfully—to form irrigation districts and to subdivide their properties. A series of droughts in the late 1920s and then collapsing markets for cattle with the onset of the Great Depression forced the holders of the old French-Glenn properties to sell 65,000 acres of the valuable Blitzen River Valley to the federal government in 1934. A few years later—stressed by drought and low prices for cattle, another large ranch along the vital Silvies River sold large acreages to the federal government. Those two federal purchases paved the way for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to put the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps to work reengineering/restoring a semblance of the old marshlands.

Nancy Langston captures the significance of federal control of the tributaries to the refuge: “In a wonderful irony, the West’s grandest cattle empire became its grandest duck and wetland empire.” The CCC’s collective works are apparent throughout the refuge today — stone buildings, fencing, cattle guards, bridges, roads, telephone lines, diversion dams, new ponds, and more.

From the beginning, the Malheur occupiers misconstrued the history and constitutional grounding of public lands and used their specious interpretations to press for privatization of the public domain. The Malheur/Harney setting, however, differed dramatically from the claims of the Bundy group, because it was a cattlemen’s empire from the beginning, owners who kept small farmers away from high-value grazing land—until the monopolists themselves mismanaged and overgrazed the range, went broke, and sold their properties to the federal government. It is also ironic that the militants housed themselves in buildings at the Malheur Refuge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an agency dedicated to the rehabilitation of the Malheur water world and its people.

Republished from the History News Network: