The ongoing armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge by anti-government protesters is grabbing national headlines and sparking a sensation on cable news.
But some public lands experts see this uproar and other recent clashes as another flare-up of tensions that have been simmering since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion movement of the 1970s and ’80s pitted critics of government land management against federal officials.
"I see this as round two" of the Sagebrush Rebellion, said Sarah Krakoff, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. "You get these flare-ups and people feeling emboldened as if they can act with impunity."
Of the most recent clashes, she added, "There does seem to be something slightly more brazen about it."
At the center of this latest conflagration: the Bundy family.
The armed militia now in its fifth day of occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon is led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. Their stated goal: to free up federal lands for ranchers, miners and loggers. The activists have said they don’t plan to hurt anyone but will defend their position with force if challenged by law enforcement.
The Bundy-led Oregon occupation comes after other closely watched conflicts pitting protesters against federal land managers and involving the brothers’ father — the well-known scofflaw and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
In May 2014, Utah County Commissioner Phil Lyman led an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through a sensitive river canyon in a protest that drew about 50 activists and resulted in at least eight archaeological sites being driven over.
The protesters were upset by the Bureau of Land Management’s decision in 2007 to close the canyon to motorized travel amid concerns that continued ATV use would threaten the loss of artifacts, wood cutting, vegetation and soil damage or looting. Cliven Bundy urged his supporters to join the illegal ATV ride.
Lyman was sentenced last month to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and a $1,000 fine for organizing the ATV ride through Recapture Canyon (E&ENews PM, Dec. 18, 2015).
Cliven Bundy became a hero to some anti-government activists when he was at the center of a tense one-week standoff earlier in 2014 over grazing fees. The government had begun to round up Bundy’s cattle after his refusal to pay fees going back to 1993, but facing pressure from armed protesters, BLM halted its roundup of Bundy’s cattle. According to the government, Bundy owes American taxpayers more than $1 million.
The BLM retreat caused outrage from environmentalists, who warned it would invite further defiance of public land laws. Cliven Bundy has yet to face any federal charges (Greenwire, April 14, 2014).
There are common themes in these confrontations and in incidents that came before them, public lands experts say.
"It’s all anti-government rebellion that refuses to recognize the federal role as a landowner," said Michael Blumm, an environmental and natural resources law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.
But since the Sagebrush Rebellion began decades ago, Blumm said, "I guess it’s getting to be more violent."
Simmering tensions over land use
It’s all part of historic tensions that have "gone on in the West over land use," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the government watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "One constant source of tension has been grazing."
Ruch added, "We see parallels to the ’90s," when a number of highly publicized confrontations in the West also grabbed national headlines.
During the Clinton administration, Nevada was a hotbed for such conflicts.
On Halloween 1993, a BLM building in Reno, Nev., was bombed. The building was empty, but the roof was damaged, The New York Times reported.
The next year, Nye County, Nev., Commissioner Dick Carver used a bulldozer to plow open a road that the Forest Service had declared closed. He and his supporters claimed that the federal government’s ownership of 93 percent of Nye County’s land was illegal, according to the Los Angeles Times. Carver was cheered by about 50 armed supporters, The New York Times reported, and later threatened to arrest a Forest Service ranger who tried to stop him.
In March 1995, a pipe bomb exploded at the unoccupied Forest Service office in Carson City, Nev. In August that year, another bomb exploded under the van of Forest Service ranger Guy Pence, who worked in the Carson City office that had been attacked earlier. No one was injured and no one claimed responsibility for either incident, according to The New York Times.
Defiant locals known as the "Shovel Brigade" readied pickaxes and spades in Jarbidge, Nev., as they organized an effort in 1999 to reopen a wilderness access road closed by the Forest Service to protect the threatened bull trout, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
The newspaper’s 1999 coverage of the event quoted Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, saying, "This may be the start of another Sagebrush Rebellion. It’s not an isolated incident."
Gregg Cawley, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming and author of a book about the Sagebrush Rebellion, said the recent clashes are related to the movement that began decades ago. "There are those kinds of skirmishes that have been happening since the Sagebrush proper," he said.
When the Sagebrush Rebellion launched in the 1970s — in the wake of the passage of a host of major environmental laws — the movement operated on two fronts, Cawley said. "The first front was to try and take the issue of who owns the federal lands to the U.S. Supreme Court." The other "was trying to get Congress to pass a law that would transfer the federal lands to the state. Obviously, neither of those strategies worked out."
The animosity died down a bit when Ronald Reagan took office, Cawley said. Campaigning for president in Utah in 1980, Reagan said, "Count me in as a rebel." Tensions flared up again during the Democratic Clinton and Obama administrations, Cawley added.
But unlike some of the more recent confrontations, "in the old Sagebrush days, the militia was not a major component," Cawley said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report this week finding that the number of national anti-government militia groups increased 37 percent in 2015 from 2014. SPLC identified 276 militia groups last year, up from 202 in 2014.
"That’s a new iteration to the battle," Cawley said of the militias’ involvements in the land conflicts. "Whether or not they’re serious, I don’t know."
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.