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<nettime> High Country News > Hal Herring > Can we make sense of the Malheur mess?


< http://www.hcn.org/articles/malheur-occupation-oregon-ammon-bundy-public-lands-essay >

Can we make sense of the Malheur mess?

A writer finds camaraderie and despair inside the Oregon standoff.

   Hal Herring 
     Feb. 12, 2016 


   What more can be said? I was one of the hundreds of journalists who
   went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Ammon Bundy
   occupation, and I saw the same things that all the rest of them did. If
   there was any difference between myself and those hundreds of other
   journalists, maybe it was that I went there looking for kindred
   spirits.

   I am a self-employed, American-born writer with a wife and two teenage
   children living in a tiny town on the plains of Montana. I'm a reader
   of the U.S. Constitution, one who truly believes that the Second
   Amendment guarantees the survival of the rest of the Bill of Rights. I
   came of age reading Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, Orwell's 1984, and
   a laundry-list of anarchists, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Bakunin and
   Proudhon, who gave me the maxim that defined my early twenties:
   "Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I
   declare him my enemy." I read Malthus and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau,
   and am a skeptic of government power. I was not surprised when I read
   about the outrage over the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and
   Steve Hammond for arson: Federal mandatory minimum sentencing has been
   a terrible idea since its inception. I am gobsmacked by an economy that
   seems engineered to impoverish anyone who dares try make their own
   living, and by a government that seems more and more distant from the
   people it represents, except when calling up our sons and daughters to
   attack chaotic peoples that clearly have nothing to do with me or
   anybody I know.

   I am isolated by a culture that is as inscrutable to me as any in the
   mountains of Afghanistan. For loving wilderness and empty lands and
   birdsong rather than teeming cities, I risk being called a xenophobe, a
   noxious nativist. For viewing guns as constitutionally protected,
   essential tools of self-defense and, if need be, liberation, I'm told
   that I defend the massacres of innocents in mass shootings. When I came
   to Montana at age twenty-five, I found in this vast landscape,
   especially in the public lands where I hunted and camped and worked,
   the freedom that was evaporating in the South, where I grew up. I got
   happily lost in the space and the history. For a nature-obsessed,
   gun-soaked malcontent like me, it was home, and when Ammon Bundy and
   his men took over the Malheur refuge, on a cold night in January, I
   thought I should go visit my neighbors.


   At first light on Jan. 12, in the parking lot above the headquarters of
   the Malheur refuge, I met Neil Wampler, a tall, white-bearded man in
   his sixties who was standing in the snow, at twelve degrees above,
   wearing a pair of old black running shoes and a green coat over a
   hooded sweatshirt. He was near the campfire where the occupiers would
   gather, behind the big white pickup that blocked the road into the
   refuge headquarters and that was emblazoned with signs that said,
   "Clemency for the Hammonds." Blaine Cooper, whose real name would be
   revealed as Stanley Blaine Hicks (with felonious history) of Humboldt,
   Arizona, was sitting in the pickup with the heat blasting. Cooper
   looked like an urban model - perfectly trimmed and moussed black hair,
   pale blue eyes, and, oddly, given the place and the weather - 4,100
   foot elevation, sagebrush steppe, severe ice fog - a lightweight black
   Calvin Klein jacket. As I approached the open window of the truck,
   Cooper said something to me about how the government had to be opposed.
   I was holding my legal pad and trying to make notes, but then he said
   something to the effect that "the left" had killed and enslaved people
   and blown up buildings to create this refuge, and I smiled, nodded, and
   kept walking. I learned from covering wolf reintroduction in 2000 that
   the most outlandish quotes, however entertaining, ruin stories. I shook
   hands with Wampler, who was much calmer than Cooper, didn't seem to be
   suffering from the cold, and actually looked like he was having a good
   time.

   "I'm just the cook, really," he said. "Been cooking for the crew since
   Bunkerville." He smiled, "And I can tell you, it's good to be the
   cook." When he told me that the goal was for a federal transfer of the
   refuge lands to the states, I asked him how much he knew about what
   would happen to the lands if they were successful. He admitted that he
   didn't know, really. "This is a deep study," he said. "Our previous
   actions were more protective, to keep the federal government from
   harming the citizens. This is different, because the states are
   asserting their 10^th Amendment prerogatives. When our founders created
   the states out of the territories, 95 percent of it was meant to be
   private land."

   I asked him if he knew the history of this place - the range wars, the
   overgrazing, the plume hunters that led to the establishment of the
   refuge in 1908. He admitted that he did not, but that he would like to
   know more. "You really need to meet Ammon, and talk to him about these
   things," he said. "I'm amenable to other solutions, but we have to rid
   ourselves of this government. All three branches are out of control.
   When we were at Bunkerville, the BLM had attack dogs, snipers, tasers.
   I saw that happening on television in California, and by 10 am that
   morning, I was packed up and on the road to join up. And we had a great
   victory there." He brightened, and the circuit-preacher intensity of
   his voice was gone. "I'll get off my soapbox now. I'm an old hippy, and
   this is a high, the most exciting and energizing thing. I'm off my
   butt, I'm 68 years old, and my friends back home are so jealous. To be
   an old hippy from San Francisco, and to be in this mix, to be friends
   with a redneck from Alabama. It's beautiful." Unlike the other
   occupiers around the fire, Wampler was not conspicuously armed, perhaps
   because, as other reporters would uncover, he has a 38-year-old
   conviction for second degree murder (of his father) in California, a
   crime for which he long ago served his time but which precludes him
   from legally owning firearms.

   As I write this, the Malheur occupation has come to an end, with Sean
   and Sandy Anderson, with whom I spent a pleasant hour or so talking
   politics and smoking cigarettes, surrendering as the last of the
   holdouts, along with the youthful techie, the seemingly demented
   Ohioan, David Fry. The likeable Andersons, in their late forties,
   seemed to me a most unlikely couple to rant for blood and maelstrom.
   They had only recently moved to Riggins, Idaho, from Wisconsin, and I
   wondered if they had not misread the West, and Idaho, and fallen in
   with militants when they might just as easily have met and joined a
   band of merry ice fishermen. During our conversation, Sean had to keep
   reminding Sandy to keep her weapon with her, as she shifted from place
   to place trying to get warm - they wore cotton fatigues more suited to
   the jungle than the Great Basin in deepest winter. Sean had some
   authority; at least, he had a radio, and he politely kept me from going
   down to the refuge headquarters until he got word that it was alright,
   and he had his (outdated but effective) Ruger Mini-14 slung or close at
   hand. I took some ribbing for being unarmed, and when I said I wasn't
   sure that my Montana concealed carry permit was even reciprocated by
   Oregon, Sean patted the little pocket Constitution visible in his coat
   pocket, and said, "This is the only permit you'll ever need." (On Jan.
   30, Sean probably cooked his own goose, legally speaking, with a
   Fry-enabled YouTube rant about killing federal agents.)

   I am doing my best here to be respectful of people with whom, it turned
   out, I disagree strongly, even violently. I could focus upon the
   essential nuttiness of the occupation, the lack of a plan for an
   outcome, the exhaustion of being assailed with pocket Constitutions any
   time one presents an argument that cannot be easily countered.
   Crackpots are drawn to such an open event like moths to a halogen light
   (and, no, I do not automatically exempt myself from the category). I
   wanted to find occupiers who could argue for what they were doing, but
   what is there to say when people take up arms inspired by, say, a
   belief that the President is the front for an Islamic takeover of the
   nation, or that the Chinese are already committed to buying the uranium
   that lies underneath the Hammond ranch.

   I went to Malheur to ask questions and to listen, to learn and report.
   But what can be reported when your source is convinced of plots and
   powers that do not exist? When I asked whether they were endangering
   the Second Amendment by brandishing AR-15s, the answer was that an
   occupation like this was the entire purpose of the Second Amendment.
   When I asked whether, since the county was the highest level of
   government recognized, the occupiers would stand down if the sheriff
   asked them to (Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, of course, already
   had), they said no, because Sheriff Ward was a tool of the oppressors.
   And when I asked whether they would stand down if the Oregon National
   Guard came and asked them to, they said it was too late for that. And
   so on.

   In the parking lot was a skinny bearded man in denim whose entire car
   was covered with professionally made ads for doctors who will
   surgically remove government-installed microchips from your brain ("If
   you were born after 1980..."). A young woman in a fur-trimmed coat and
   tall leather fashion boots approached me and one of the occupiers and
   asked us to guide her around. The occupier, a preternaturally
   soft-spoken and friendly man in his forties, unarmed, asked her what
   she wanted to see, and she said, "Anything I'm not supposed to see." He
   looked at me and shrugged, then dutifully led her through the
   sagebrush. She was quickly back, asked me for my name, and then sped
   away into the ice fog in a Prius.

   {{Photo: A car with ads about government-implanted microchips, with links to
   websites about various conspiracy theories parked at the entrance to
   the refuge headquarters.  Brooke Warren/High Country News}}

   There was the legless man - James - who was carried in his wheelchair
   across the snow to join us at the fire, an energetic and apocalyptic
   monologist of almost surreal dullness, who beseeched the Lord for
   forgiveness each time he cursed and insisted on being lifted from his
   chair so he could kneel in the cold mud beside the fire pit and pray
   for us all, whose wheelchair constantly threatened to tip over or roll
   forward into the flames, despite the blocks of firewood and kindling we
   jammed under the front wheels. In the seemingly endless quest to haul
   breakfast or coffee or ammo on a rope up into the 90-foot steel fire
   lookout that overlooks the parking lot, a trapdoor banged, causing Sean
   Anderson to flinch (we are, after all, in a heavily armed encampment
   that is illegally occupying a federal wildlife refuge, despite the
   freshman debate team campout atmosphere), and say, "I thought it was
   on, there for a second." To which James shouted, "I hope it is! I hope
   it is! Bring on the fire!" A series of refuge-owned ATVs came up the
   icy road, ridiculously fast, fishtailing on the trail to the fire
   tower, and James cheered. "I love everybody here!" he exclaimed.

   To focus on the bizarre, to wallow in the cheap pleasures of ridicule,
   is to sacrifice any chance of finding meaning or instruction here.
   Jason Patrick, one of the eleven occupiers now in jail, told me that he
   could not care less what happened to the lands at the Malheur, or what
   the history of the place was. "It says in Article 1, Section 8, Clause
   17, that the federal government has no right to own any of these lands.
   That's it. If we don't abide by the Constitution, which limits what the
   federal government can do, then we have no rule of law, we have no
   country." Patrick is 43 years old and wears khaki pants, a dress shirt
   and a blue blazer, as if ready to address a court rather than stand in
   the snow, smoke Marlboro Lights, and talk to reporters and other
   skeptics, which is what he did most of the time I saw him.

   One morning, we stood outside the refuge headquarters, a venerable
   building of rough-cut local stone. Within, Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum,
   and the core group were having yet another meeting to prepare for the
   upcoming press briefing. The sun came briefly through the fog, and
   Patrick and I stood smoking and being pelted with bits of rime falling
   from the old Siberian elms and cottonwoods as the sun heated them.
   Below us, Duane Ehmer of Irrigon, Oregon (who might have been the only
   native Oregonian in the occupation), was feeding his cow-horse,
   Hellboy, from hay stacked by his rusted white horse trailer, both of
   them taking a break from being the symbol of the occupation, the
   too-much-photographed man on the horse with the American flag.

   In his other life, Ehmer is a welder, rides Hellboy in jousting
   matches, hunts black bear on horse-packing trips in the national
   forest. Because he is convinced that the federal government will soon
   sell off all public lands or close them to the public, he worries about
   the loss of access to places to ride his horses. He gets $130 a month
   in disability payments for hearing loss incurred while he was in the
   military. His weapons are mostly symbolic, a cap-and-ball Colt
   revolver, and a single-shot 12 gauge shotgun. I suspect that he does
   not have the ready cash to buy the AR-15s and Trijicon sights, the
   tactical sniper rifles tricked with the latest optics, the Glock
   handguns that are the norm among his colleagues, but it could be that
   he just has no interest in newfangled lethal gadgetry. He showed me his
   classic 1859 McClellan cavalry saddle, and told me he was trying to get
   a relative to bring down his cavalry saber. ("And they call me a
   terrorist," he said, shaking his head.) He is in jail now, too.

   Jason Patrick is no cowboy, and doesn't try to be. He isn't a physical
   fitness buff, rugged outdoorsman, or gunner. He might share with Ammon
   Bundy and the rest of the Mormon contingent of occupiers the belief
   that the Constitution is divinely inspired, but that's not clear,
   because he does not talk religion. He reveres the Constitution as the
   ultimate stopgap to a government that, in his view, ruins everything it
   touches or tries to guide. His disdain for President Barack Obama is
   matched by his fury at George W. Bush. Patrick had a roofing business
   in Georgia that collapsed with the economic crash of 2008, and he
   believes, as I do, that the endless wars and crony capitalism of the
   Bush era destroyed the assets of middle-class America, while "too big
   to fail" government relief programs further evaporated our money upward
   and away. Like Sean Anderson, Patrick is tired of a government that
   sends young people away to die in wars that profit, to an often obscene
   degree, the one class whose children will never serve in them. "My
   father was a Vietnam veteran," Patrick said, "and we lived on a
   homestead in Virginia that we cut out of the woods. We were off the
   grid a long time before that was ever a thing to be." His father died
   when Patrick was twelve years old, he says, of cancer related to
   wartime exposure to Agent Orange. His mother spent years trying to
   collect veteran's benefits to support their family.

   Our conversation was interrupted by Finicum, who was coming out the
   door with a harried expression. Finicum and Patrick had a short and
   slightly heated exchange over who had failed to clean up the refuge
   woodworking shop. As Patrick headed over to the shop, I was reminded of
   other groups I've known or been a part of, anarchist, communal, certain
   families, where hierarchy is rejected, and how the smallest chore takes
   Herculean effort to address or convince someone else to address. This
   was my only contact with Finicum beside the circus-like press
   conferences held in the parking lot. I learned later that, like
   Patrick, Finicum had his own business failure behind him, a bankruptcy
   in 2002, and an admission to reporters that his ranch, even before he
   renounced his federal grazing leases, just covered expenses (which is
   why his main business was taking in foster children). With a huge
   family of his own, reports place the number of Finicum's children at
   either eleven or fourteen - I cannot imagine how anyone can survive,
   much less prosper, in the current US economy, with that many mouths to
   feed, that many shoes to buy. Even with the comfort of strong religious
   faith, the stress of meeting the bills every month must have been
   profound. Watching Finicum walk away, clean Wranglers with his
   camouflage gaiters pulled tightly to the knees, a squared-away
   Westerner at home in the snow and the cold, I could not have guessed
   that he would be the one to die in this chaotic, seemingly pointless
   takeover.

   It was clear to me, though, that somebody would die. Such certitude as
   these men and women possess demands blood sacrifice to justify itself.
   There were too many armed people in, and circling, the occupation, with
   too many varying levels of sanity and too many varying motivations for
   being there. Even Neil Wampler, a man whose demons seem like they are
   mostly in his past, had said, "You can't not give an inch and be
   assured of a peaceful outcome. If it came down to a violent showdown,
   we're willing to pay the price." Walking around the refuge parking lot
   and buildings, I saw a lot of gray beards and "We the People" caps and
   camo watch caps covering thinning hair or bald pates. The weapons and
   the tactical vests lent a seriousness to men disappearing into the
   irrelevance of late middle age. Guns,  for as long as we have had them,
   have given undue impetus to arguments that lack merit or reason, given
   credence to delusional rants.

   The American West has the highest suicide rates in the nation, and has
   since frontier days. The current epidemic of suicide among white males
   in the US is part of the story here - in a recent article at Salon,
   Robert Hennelly wrote, "According to federal morbidity stats in 1999,
   9,599 white men killed themselves. By 2010 that number was 14,379. In
   2013 the U.S. recorded 41,149 suicides, 70 percent of which were white
   men, who mostly shot themselves. The most heavily affected demographic
   is middle-aged white men in the 45 to 64 age cohort.

   This die-off may serve as a kind of anthropological warning about the
   pernicious nature of global capitalism and how it treats those its
   marketplace judges surplus..."

   Forty-five to 64 is exactly the age bracket that dominated the
   occupation of the Malheur.  Camaraderie and unity of purpose are the
   strongest antidotes to despair, and despite the conflicting opinions
   and anarchic individualism of so many in the modern militia movements,
   unity in fiery opposition to the federal government, especially a
   federal government headed by a Democrat, is the universal.

   It does no good whatsoever to try and discuss with them the Taylor
   Grazing Act of 1934, which empowered the Bundy family and many others
   among the 18,000 or so other public lands grazers to own small
   holdings, usually around a water source, and graze their livestock on
   public lands around those holdings for what may arguably be the lowest
   grazing fee on the planet. Most of the occupiers have never heard of
   the Taylor Grazing Act, and those who might have, insist that "grazing
   rights" on public land are a property right attached to the base
   private land. No amount of arguing will convince them otherwise,
   although the Bureau of Land Management will plainly state that grazing
   of BLM lands is not a property right, or a right at all, any more than
   my neighbor's home and yard is mine if I rent it, or that my renting a
   home means the owner cannot sell it or rent it to somebody else, or
   paint it a different color. When presented with that fact, an occupier
   like Jason Patrick will merely say that the BLM has no right to exist.

   No one seemed interested in the fate of the lands they were claiming in
   the takeover. None could explain why a mostly Gentile band of militants
   were now following what is almost entirely a Mormon-led insurrection,
   with a man named Ammon, named after the leader of the Nephites, at the
   head, or a man who calls himself Captain Moroni (Alma 59:13 "And it
   came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of
   their indifference concerning the freedom of their country") on guard
   duty, or a spokesman like Finicum, whose ranch in Cane Beds, Arizona is
   less than two miles from the FLDS enclave of Colorado City. The Gentile
   militants seem uninterested in how they might fit in to a renewed State
   of Deseret, even though the language that the Bundy leaders use is
   almost identical to the 19^th century plans for that kingdom, and the
   Malheur lies at the very northern expanse of the old State of Deseret
   claims. They do not see themselves as volunteers in a new version of
   the Nauvoo Legion from the Utah War of 1857-58 because none of them
   seem to know, or be interested in, any of that history.

   Finicum must have known the history of his homeland in the Arizona
   Strip, which in the time of his grandfather was almost denuded by the
   overstocking of 100,000 head of cattle, and which, in the 1890's, even
   the hard-as-nails cattleman and visionary pioneer Preston Nutter could
   not control. A smallholder like Finicum, unless he had his own militia,
   would not have survived one season in the early settlement years of the
   Arizona Strip. The battles over water sources and the destruction of
   the range were such that Preston Nutter, not exactly a big-government
   kind of businessman, was a leading advocate for the Taylor Grazing Act.


   It is tempting to use the venerable Santayana quote, "Those who cannot
   remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but it doesn't fit here.
   Ammon Bundy (I did not meet him during my visit to the refuge) may or
   may not know the history of land use in the West, but there will be no
   repeating the free-grazing era of the late 19^th century. Not in the
   fastest-growing developed nation on earth, on a planet that will soon
   play host to nine or 10 billion human beings. Nothing will be free.
   What the militants are asking for is almost exactly what more
   mainstream political leaders like Rep. Rob Bishop, from Utah, or the
   American Lands Council, [47]now headed by Montana state Sen. Jennifer
   Fielder, say they want, too. The Malheur occupation, with the incessant
   press coverage in its early weeks, was the soapbox for disseminating
   payloads of misinformation about America's public lands, about their
   management, about how and why we have them. Every soundbite was
   delivered to further the goal of privatization.

   The Bundys and the militants who follow and support them are the agents
   of their own destruction.

   Should these adherents to the land transfer movement succeed and have
   the public lands given or sold to the states, some version of the State
   of Deseret will almost certainly flourish. Such a place already exists,
   of course: the Deseret Ranches, owned by the Church of Latter Day
   Saints, 235,000 acres in Utah and 678,000 acres in Florida (2 percent
   of Florida's landmass). The LDS corporation would certainly be prepared
   to make some very large purchases of what is now public land, but it is
   highly unlikely that any of the Bundy family, or any of Finicum's many
   children, would be grazing their cows there. Smaller operators cannot
   own lands that do not put enough pounds on cows to pay property taxes.
   It is unlikely that any of the current crop of smallholder ranchers
   anywhere in the West will be able to bid for productive land against
   the Church; or against families like the Wilks of Texas, who have so
   far bought over 300,000 acres of austere grazing land north south of
   the Missouri Breaks in Montana; or the Koch family, whose ranch
   holdings comprise about 460,000 acres (including almost a quarter
   million acres in Montana); or Ted Turner, who has some 2 million acres
   across the US; or Stan Kroenke, who two years ago purchased the
   165,000-acre Broken O Ranch in Montana and has just bought the 510,000
   acre W.T. Waggoner Ranch in Texas.

   Buyers, in a world packed and competitive beyond the imaginations of
   those who set aside these unclaimed and abandoned lands as forest
   reserves and public grazing lands in the early 1900s, are now
   everywhere, planet-wide. As Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, when he was
   president of the American Lands Council, famously said of privatizing
   federal lands, "It's like having your hands on the lever of a
   modern-day Louisiana Purchase."

   When that lever is pulled, and it will be, unless a majority of
   Americans know enough about what is at stake to oppose it, we will live
   through the transformation of our country. Federal water rights that
   underpin entire agricultural economies, and that are critical to some
   of the last family farms and ranches in America, will be in play. Few
   Americans, even those in the cities of the east who know nothing about
   these lands, will be untouched in some way by the transformation. Once
   the precedent for divesting federal lands is well-set, the eastern
   public lands, most of them far more valuable than those in the West,
   will go on the international auction block. The unique American
   experiment in balancing the public freedom and good with private
   interests will be forever shattered, while a new kind of inequality
   soars, not just inequality of economics and economic opportunity, but
   of life experience, the chance to experience liberty itself. The
   understanding that we all share something valuable in common - the vast
   American landscape, yawning to all horizons and breathtakingly
   beautiful - will be further broken. These linked notions of liberty and
   unity and the commons have been obstacles to would-be American
   oligarchs and plutocrats from the very founding of our nation, which is
   why they have been systematically attacked since the Gilded Age of the
   1890s.

   I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the
   fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an
   existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving
   home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of
   sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule
   deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and
   wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would
   have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist
   Thomas Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my
   childhood, and of Lewis' writings on the nature of evil, where evil is
   never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature,
   has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth
   and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes
   hatred of those we believe don't share our devotion, or don't share it
   the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means
   to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work
   there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a
   world replete with man's endeavors. The U.S. Constitution, one of the
   most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just
   a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement.

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