Since Saturday, an armed militia has been occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. The building had been vacant over the holiday weekend, so no employees were around when Ammon Bundy and his gaggle of patriots marched in and made themselves at home. Bundy’s militia, now calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, intend to reclaim the federal land and insist that it is their constitutional right to do so.
“This refuge here is rightfully owned by the people and we intend to use it,” said Bundy on Sunday. “We will be here as a unified body of people that understand the principles of the Constitution.”
According to Bundy, this “unified body of people” refers to the ranchers, loggers and assorted patriots that have been deprived of their constitutional rights to…do what exactly?
In a video posted to the Bundy Ranch Facebook page, Bundy explained himself by saying that all comfort, wealth, food and necessities come from the earth. “We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point where it puts us in poverty.” At the time of this writing, the video has been Liked over 6,600 times, shared by 12,792 users and received 3,500 comments. Many of those comments insist that Bundy and his militia are doing the right thing and “trying to put the federal government back in its proper place.” Other users are simply baffled.
“But these people don’t own the land,” one commenter wrote on Sunday. “It’s a federal wildlife preserve and it has been since 1908. Why are ranchers from Nevada claiming a federal wildlife preserve in Oregon belongs to them? There is no world in which that even makes sense.”
Indeed, taken at face value this occupation defies logic. What’s happening, however, is the result of several different issues colliding at once. It’s a disturbingly intricate mess, so I will do my best to untangle the meatier threads.
Starting With the Hammond Boys…
The immediate origin of Bundy’s occupation doesn’t have anything to do with Bundy or his militia whatsoever. Instead, it can be traced to a rally that was held in Burns, Oregon, on behalf of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
In October, the Hammonds were sentenced to serve five years in prison following the destruction of public lands adjacent to their ranch. Dwight Hammond, 72, and his son Steven, 46, were accused of committing two counts of arson on federal lands between 2001 and 2006. According to the Hammonds, these fires were set on their own ranch in the Harney Basin (about 53 miles south of Burns) and accidentally crossed over onto federal property. In the first case, the fire was to curb the spread of an invasive plant; in the second, to prevent the spread of wildfire.
Prosecutors, however, argued that the Hammonds set the first fire to destroy evidence that they had been illegally hunting deer on federal land. According to a press release from the Oregon District Attorney’s Office,
“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to “light up the whole country on fire.” One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations. […] Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”
Conviction of arson on federal land carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. However, the federal judge who ruled on the Hammonds’ case considered the minimum too severe and instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven Hammond to 12 months in federal prison, with both required to pay $400,000 to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Hammonds went on to serve their full sentences.
Here’s where the story starts to get complicated. The U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Hammonds considered the ranchers’ reduced sentences a miscarriage of justice. The federal government would subsequently appeal the decision, which ultimately resulted in a new ruling by the Ninth Circuit court in October 2015. “Given the seriousness of arson,” the court ruled, “a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.”
Under the new ruling, the Hammonds were re-sentenced for their crime, this time for five years. Many ranchers cried foul at the ruling and helped organized a rally on behalf of the Hammonds that was to take place on the weekend before they were scheduled to report to prison.
That rally took place this past Saturday in Burns, Oregon. Among the attendees was Ammon Bundy.
Who Is Ammon Bundy?
Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who in 2014 clashed with federal agents over, you guessed it, his right to use federal lands. In the 1990s, Cliven Bundy decided to stop paying the BLM to graze his cattle on their lands.
It should be noted here that the federal government owns more than half the land in the Western United States, and more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada. To use this land, Western ranchers are charged a minimal grazing fee compared to what they would pay at market price. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the BLM’s grazing fees were 93 percent cheaper than the average market rate in 16 Western states in 2012. (This is in part due to the fees being set at a flat, national rate that cannot be adjusted to match local demand. In 2014, these fees covered only 15 percent of the costs of maintaining these lands, with the remaining portion being ponied up by the taxpayers.)
By 1998, the BLM had had enough of Cliven grazing his cattle for free, so he was asked by the federal court to remove them. He didn’t, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the U.S. District Court of Nevada gave federal authorities permission to remove the cattle themselves. They didn’t make their move until April 2014, at which point Cliven and a group of armed supporters entered into a standoff with the feds.
One month later, the BLM gave Bundy back the hundreds of cows they had impounded, and ended this ridiculous story without bloodshed and any progress whatsoever. Bundy still owes the government more than $1 million in fees and fines, but the rancher will probably pay that bill around the time he stops grazing his cattle on federal land.
That brings us to Ammon Bundy, the 40-year-old son of Cliven Bundy and the manager of a valet car fleet service in Arizona. After the family’s victory against the feds in 2014, Ammon was quoted as saying, “The war has just begun.” Oregon would appear to be the second front.
As the rally for the Hammonds concluded this past Saturday, Ammond and a group of supporters began to urge the attendees to take up arms in opposition to the federal government.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” said Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward in a statement Sunday. “When in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
Following the rally for the Hammonds, Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan joined what The Oregonian has dubbed “hard-core militiamen” at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles southeast of Burns. On his Facebook page, Ammon called on patriots to join them at the refuge and to bring their weapons. The militia claims they have as many as 100 supporters with them at the ranch.
In phone interviews with The Oregonian, the Bundys say they do not want to hurt anyone but they will not rule out violence if police attempt to remove them. They are demanding the release of the Hammonds and that the federal government relinquish its control of the Malheur National Forest.
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” said Ammon, adding that he and the militia are planning on occupying the refuge for years.
For their parts, Dwight and Steven Hammond expressed that they did not support an armed standoff with the federal government and would report to prison, as planned, following the weekend. The Hammonds did so on Monday, January 4.
To hear Ryan Bundy tell it, all the militia is doing is exercising its constitutional right to reclaim land that rightfully belongs to Americans. “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control,” he said. “What we’re doing is not rebellious. What we’re doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
Does the Militia Have a Constitutional Right to “Reclaim” This Land?
In a word, no.
In the lengthy video below, one of the militiamen gives his reasons for joining the occupation, apologizing to his wife and daughters for missing Christmas and New Years. The man in the video is Jon Ritzheimer, a former United States Marine, Iraq War veteran, Three Percenter and noted anti-Muslim protester. Speaking to the camera, Ritzheimer tearfully explains that he cannot come home because he “swore an oath to protect and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
In the video, Ritzheimer frequently decries the tyranny and oppression taking place in Oregon and reiterates that he will lay down his life to stop the violation of the U.S. constitution. It all sounds very heartfelt, but what violations of the constitution are taking place?
As Ian Bartrum, constitutional law professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV, writes in the Las Vegas Review Journal, men like Cliven Bundy cannot argue that they have a “constitutional right” to claim federal property as their own because the constitution explicitly gives the power of property rights to the federal government. Under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the “power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property of the United States.”
The land Bundy grazes his cattle on was ceded to the U.S. government by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but that land has belonged to the fed ever since and was never under any obligation to award it to private holders. “The plain legal meaning of all this is that the Constitution expressly authorizes Congress to regulate the use and disposition of federal lands,” writes Bartrum. “Congress need not, in other words, rely on its controverted power to regulate interstate commerce (or any other indirect authority) to govern the land in question. This explains why the courts have flatly (and repeatedly) rejected Bundy’s mysterious claim of ‘rights’ rooted in the Constitution. Indeed, the most recent judge to review the subject concluded that, ‘Bundy has produced no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada.’”
However, Bartrum concedes, “[a]ll of this is not to say that the BLM is managing these federal lands well.”
Now, it is true that working and occupying U.S. territory did, at one time, lead to land ownership in this country. This is known as “homesteading,” and it was largely how the frontier was settled.
“Until 1934,” writes Jedediah Purdy in the New Yorker, “much of Harney County could be homesteaded in ranching tracts that were as large as six hundred and forty acres. Although President Franklin Roosevelt ended active homesteading in response to the Dust Bowl, he did so by executive action, and the laws permitting homesteading remained on the books, poised for possible revival, until Congress repealed them, in 1976.”
Ever since that time, Westerners belonging to the Sagebrush Rebellion have argued that the federal government should cede its lands to private owners. Some county governments have even tried to pass ordinances that supersede federal jurisdiction but this, in fact, is unconstitutional. And yet, federal lands remain the site of many timbering, ranching and mining operations, all generously subsidized by the government.
These Are Angry Men
What you have at the end of the day is a bunch of very angry men, many of them belonging to a resurgent militia movement that dates back to President Obama’s inauguration.
“Soon after the election, we saw the formation of dozens of militia groups throughout the country,” Daryl Johnson, a former analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, recently told Vox. “They were down under 80 groups, we see them balloon up to about 150 groups by the end of 2008, and by 2010, we had over 300 militia groups operating in the US.”
These “true paramilitary organizations” include the Oath Keepers, which recruits current and former military and law enforcement officials that have taken oaths “to defend America against all enemies foreign and domestic.” And that applies even, and sometimes especially, to the federal government itself.
Why the rise in the militias? Is it the perceived threat of Islam? The fear that Democrats will take away their guns? The disgust at a black Commander-in-Chief? According to militia analysts, it’s all of these things, combined with the disenfranchisement of America’s middle- and lower-class whites.
By the 1970s, nearly all the ranches surrounding the Hammonds’ land were purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and added to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Hammonds were approached many times to sell their land to the USFWS, but they refused. Then, according to the Conservative Tree House, the USFWS and the BLM told the remaining ranchers that grazing was detrimental to the wildlife in the area and revoked 32 out of 53 grazing permits. The remaining fees were then increased.
Whether or not this is the full story, it does not matter to the men who are now occupying Malheur in protest.
“While we’re here, what we’re going to be doing is freeing these lands up and getting the ranchers back to ranching, and getting the miners back to mining, getting the loggers back to logging,” said Ammon. “What will happen is that Harney County will begin to thrive again. At one time they were the wealthiest county in the state, now they’re the poorest county in the state. And we will reverse that in just a few years by freeing up their land and resources.”
In actuality, there are six counties with lower median household incomes and three counties with lower per-capita incomes than Harney, Oregon, but that is perhaps beside the point. The Bundys, like the militia they lead, are angry at the perceived injustices of their federal oppressors. And if things were simply rolled back to a simpler time, they argue, America would be great again.
Why the hell is an armed militia occupying an abandoned federal building in Oregon? Because they’re mad as hell that that’s all they can do.