Feds Use Soft Strategy to End Militant Takeover

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Pam Linn

In the past month I’ve read just short of a dozen news stories about the armed takeover of the 200,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County of southeast Oregon. Problem is, none of them answered my questions: Why were the anti-government militants allowed to camp out in the office building since Jan. 2, appropriating government vehicles and heavy equipment to drive around the compound?

We do know the occupants were led by Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, both sons of Cliven Bundy, whose long-running battle with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada remains unresolved. What happened with the court order for Bundy to pay fees he owes for grazing his cattle on public land? He never paid. 

Did the elder Bundy’s claims of victory embolden his sons to occupy the Oregon refuge, demanding it be turned over to local control and the release of two local ranchers imprisoned for arson on federal land? That’s all the stories told us. Sorry, but that’s not enough information.

The Associated Press last week issued an article that answered some of those questions. AP reporter Martha Bellisle explained that the FBI changed strategy after deadly confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas ended in needless bloodshed in the early 1990s. That’s a long time ago, but if you want to know what happened there you’ll have to Google them like I did. 

According to court documents released last week, there were a total of 16 militants, including four who are still occupying the refuge. Bundy and four others in two cars were jailed after leaving the compound to attend a community meeting. In the ensuing confrontation, Robert LaVoy Finicum — an Arizona rancher acting as spokesman for the militants — was killed by officers who claimed he was reaching for a gun. Videos recorded by officers seem to bear this out.

While at the compound, the occupiers ate food donated by a local rancher and tried to attract more support through social media. Does the building have WiFi? Kenneth Medenbach was arrested while driving a government vehicle to a supermarket. Was this trip to restock Ding Dongs or Ho Hos?

After Bundy’s arrest, all but four vacated the compound; the holdouts refuse to leave without reassurance they will not be arrested. However, FBI agents surrounding the refuge have included them in the indictment. All have been charged with a felony count of “conspiring to impede federal officers from carrying out their duties through force or intimidation.”

Federal officers say their strategy is de-escalation, that time is on their side and they hope for a peaceful solution. Oregon officials including Gov. Kate Brown are becoming impatient with the hands-off strategy and say they want the occupiers forcibly removed.

The two ranchers convicted of arson — Steve Hammond and his father Dwight Hammond Jr. — at first were charged as terrorists for the fire that started on their land in Harney County then spread to public land where it was spotted by BLM firefighters. Fire is a tool traditionally used in eastern Oregon to control invasive species.

In 2001, Steve Hammond said he set the fire to control wild juniper but BLM said the fire was set to cover illegal deer hunting. In 2006, Hammond set a backfire to keep a lightning-caused fire from burning their ranch and feedstock. Both Hammonds were indicted in 2010 and served time in jail. After their release, they were charged with more offenses and ordered back to prison.

Bundy seeks their release and also claims the federal government has no right to charge fees for grazing on public land. This contradicts the Taylor Grazing Act passed by Congress and signed into law by FDR in 1935, under which grazing permits and leases were issued for 10 years. To qualify, a rancher’s land must be capable of producing crops to support livestock in winter. The act was preempted by the Federal Land Policy and Management Policy Act when the two were merged in 1946 to form the BLM. Section 15 stipulates “no provision for free domestic use or grazing” and requires a two-year notice of cancellation. So much for Bundy’s claim that grazing rights should be free.

After the two disasters at Ruby Ridge and Waco, in which federal agents were implicated in wrongdoing, it’s no wonder the FBI adopted a strategy of no confrontation with armed occupiers.

I agree with that but wouldn’t it be more effective to make the occupiers less comfortable? How about turning off the utilities? Surely providers would shut off water, electricity, and/or gas. Freezing cold and out of food, the militants might gladly vacate. No bullets or tear gas required. And without WiFi, they couldn’t attract supporters. Just a suggestion.