Vanilla ISIS, Y’all Quaeda, YeeHawdists, terrorists, militants, militia — whatever you call them, and whether you fear them or laugh at them, the band of mainly out-of-state, armed and anti-government protesters who have taken over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Oregon’s east side have drawn almost nonstop attention since their siege of the remote bird sanctuary began Jan. 3. Ironically, the armed protesters who hate the federal government also benefit from the feds.
At the heart of the standoff lie America’s public lands. More than half of Oregon’s land is federally owned. Some ranchers want that land moved into state, county and private hands. The leader of the occupying group is Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, who famously had an armed standoff with federal authorities at his Nevada ranch in 2014 over a similar issue — grazing cattle on federal lands. Ammon Bundy was Tasered during that standoff for kicking a police dog.
The Bundys owe more than $1 million in grazing fees.
The Oregon standoff began over the Hammonds, a father and son who have had a long-simmering feud with the Bureau of Land Management. In the late ’80s the senior Hammond allegedly made death threats against refuge managers over his cattle trespassing on refuge land. In 2012, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of lighting two fires that burned federal land, in 2001 and again in 2006.
According to a statement by Acting U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, the first fire was set to cover up a poaching incident, but it also endangered nearby hunters. The second was set without notifying firefighters battling nearby fires. Judge Michael Hogan sentenced the men below the congressionally mandated prison terms. They served time and were released. The case went back to court, and later Judge Ann Aiken resentenced them to the five-year mandatory minimum. The Hammonds reported to prison Jan. 4.
Despite sharing the armed protesters’ ire for the feds, the Hammonds have said via their attorney that Ammon Bundy does not speak for them.
While the Bundys and the Hammonds might claim to hate the federal government, data shows they have benefitted from the feds. Mother Jones reports that in 2010 Ammon Bundy received a federal small business loan of $530,000. Data collected by the Environmental Working Group shows Hammond Ranches Inc., received farm payments totaling $295,471 from 1995 through 2012.
Finally, a 2015 report by the Center for Biological Diversity shows that in 2012, the BLM’s grazing fees were 93 percent cheaper than the average market rate in 16 Western states, and in 2013, it cost Oregon ranchers an average of $1.35 a month to graze on federal land and $15 on private land for a cow and her calf.
On Jan. 4 the Bundy group met with widespread derision after one of its members put out a plea on social media for supporters to send them snacks and energy drinks.
Bundy has said he will remain at the refuge for “as long as it takes.” According to The Guardian newspaper, sources say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge, intends to cut off power. “‘It’s in the middle of nowhere,’” said the official, who is based in Washington, D.C., and has knowledge of the planned response to the militia. “‘And it’s flat-ass cold up there.’”
Many on social media have questioned why the authorities are willing to wait out armed white men when in other situations law enforcement has been quick to shoot or quash the protests of people of color. Others have noted that when talking about the rightful ownership of federal lands, Native Americans have more rights to it than the ranchers. The federal and ranch lands at issue in the Hammond case were historically Paiute lands.