Letters from the West

Bundy verdict: More anger, more injustice, more anxiety

Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Ore., a supporter of the group that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, walks his horse near Burns, Ore., in January.
Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Ore., a supporter of the group that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, walks his horse near Burns, Ore., in January. AP

Idaho legislator Judy Boyle went on a radio show after the astonishing not-guilty verdicts last week in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation case to tell the Bundy followers not to try a repeat.

“The last thing we want to see is people using this as an excuse to take over a federal building,” said Boyle, a Republican representative from Midvale who visited Ammon and Ryan Bundy last January, soon after the brothers led a group of armed ranchers, militia members and self-described patriots to take over the Southeast Oregon refuge.

Boyle shares the Bundys’ view that the federal government should not hold public land in the West, and she was as surprised as everyone else when a federal jury returned its verdict on conspiracy and other charges against the Bundys and five other occupiers. But she pointed out to other followers that the Bundys remain in custody, awaiting trial in February on charges stemming from an April 2014 standoff with federal officers in Nevada. There are no winners here.

Eleven other occupiers already have pleaded guilty, including one of the Bundys’ top lieutenants, Ryan Payne, who pleaded to the same conspiracy charges on which the Bundys were acquitted. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed while evading police. Another seven are slated to go to trial in January on conspiracy charges.

“I told Ammon this is not the place,” Boyle said of her conversation last January. “This is not the high ground. You don’t have the sheriff on your side.

“Ammon believed that God told him to do this. I’m not going to argue with that.”

Boyle, who was a staffer for former Republican Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, has long supported efforts by ranchers and others to protect beneficial use of federal land, much of which began in the late 19th and early 20th century. She is one of the strongest voices in the Idaho Legislature for transferring public land from the federal government to the states.

She supports civil disobedience when all else fails. But she also believes in the rule of law.

In the aftermath of last week’s verdict, federal land management employees and their supporters worry that extremists will be emboldened to threaten and intimidate them as they do their jobs. And the botched case makes them wonder whether the U.S. Department of Justice will or can watch their backs.

Ironically, federal employees now share some of the same feelings of angst and powerlessness that the Bundys and their followers say they felt a year ago, when they initially went to Harney County to protest what they saw as unjust treatment in federal court of a pair of Southeast Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson.

The frustration and fear that federal employees experienced during the takeover and standoff has not abated, and last week’s verdict gave those employees no comfort.

“Unless (the Justice Department) is with these agencies, they are going to approach this with one arm tied behind their back,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The Malheur visitors center that the occupiers commandeered for 41 days remains closed. Nearly half the staff has retired or transferred, with none replaced, Ruch said. In Nevada, the area around the ranch of Ammon and Ryan’s father, Cliven Bundy — site of the 2014 standoff — “is a no man’s land,” Ruch said. Bundy cattle still graze illegally and federal biologists are barred from conducting research.

Following the verdict, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service that runs the refuge, said that the “safety, security and well-being” of employees and visitors to public land remains the federal government’s top priority.

“I am absolutely committed to maintaining a safe work environment that allows employees to uphold the laws of the United States and carry out our mission of responsible public land and water stewardship for the benefit of all Americans,” she said.

‘THE LAND BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE’

In this country, the rule of law essentially means that all parties — citizens and government officials — follow the same edicts, and once a court has decided on the law, all those parties accept it. They can work the process to change it, but they observe the process.

In their words during the occupation and after the trial, the Bundys showed they believe something else. They are still on their mission from God, Ammon Bundy of Emmett said, telling The Oregonian website that he “will continue to stand” and that the verdict shows they were right.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Ryan Bundy warned President Barack Obama not to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate a national monument on the 350,000-acre piece of Nevada desert called Gold Butte, near the Bundy ranch about 100 miles east of Las Vegas, leaving open whether his family or their followers would stage another standoff.

“The government should be scared,” Ryan Bundy told The Post from jail. “They are in the wrong. The land does not belong to the government. The land belongs to the people of Clark County, not to the people of the United States.”

Bundy was using the same constitutional argument that has been rejected by courts but embraced by far-right movements going back decades.

But before the brothers and others made that argument central to their occupation, they came to Southeast Oregon to protest an impending action against two local ranchers that was viewed widely as an injustice.

Dwight and Steven Hammond had been convicted of arson for setting fires that burned federal land. They served one year in prison and were released. But then federal prosecutors took them back to court, seeking to force them to serve a five-year mandatory sentence under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that Congress passed in 1996.

A judge agreed, and the father and son went to prison — willingly — on Jan. 2. The Bundy occupation began that day.

The decision to take the Hammonds back to prison was “really stupid,” spreading anger beyond the extremist voices, said Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.

But Suckling, whose group has become very adept at using the court system, said in the case of the Hammonds, the legal avenues have been exhausted. Our rule of law depends on people accepting the outcome even if they don’t like it, Suckling said. And ditto for those now unhappy with the Bundy verdict.

The Bundys and all followers of the “sovereign citizen movement” believe in a parallel view of the Constitution, where they petition the sheriff and other local officials to redress grievances. If they get no response, they take it upon themselves to resolve the issue.

“That’s conflict creation, not conflict resolution,” Suckling said.

HEADED FOR CONFRONTATION

Ruch doesn’t blame the Bundy occupation on the Hammond case. He sees its roots in federal inaction in Nevada in 2014.

The Bundys and their militia followers were emboldened when they faced no charges in the 2014 standoff when gunmen, called to the confrontation in a national appeal, aimed at federal officers and forced them to stop confiscating Bundy’s cattle.

“Given the inaction in (2014), if it wasn’t the Hammonds, it would have been somebody else,” Ruch said.

Last week’s verdict brought criticism of the prosecutors, for being overconfident in their case and overreaching with their conspiracy charges. It also brought criticism to the judicial system: The same day that the jury issued its decision against the white defendants who often cited religion, North Dakota police arrested 141 unarmed Indians singing and praying against a proposed pipeline.

Contrast that to the FBI allowing the Southeast Oregon occupiers to come and go, desecrating areas and artifacts held sacred by the Burns Paiute tribe.

“Discrimination based on race is inherently unjust,” said John Freemuth, executive director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “I think you can make the case that the prosecutors just overreached.”

SO WHAT NOW?

Secretary Jewell used the verdict as an opportunity to remind the public about the successes of collaborative groups such as the High Desert Partnership in Harney County, Ore. The strength of the federal land management agencies are their people, who live in these rural communities, volunteer to drive ambulances, serve on Rotary clubs and coach youth sports teams.

Over the past 40 years, these ties have become more tenuous, said Idaho’s Boyle. Federal agencies move people around, and federal employees often don’t stay long enough to build solid community relationships. Budget cuts have reduced the number of offices and people across the West.

“The rest of the country doesn’t understand these local communities surrounded by public land,” Freemuth said. “The people in the communities don’t accept that things have changed.”

Everyone says the federal agencies need to listen better, but that’s not the only issue, Freemuth said. There are real and deep differences over land policy. Boyle, for example, wants federal land turned over to the states. The Center for Biological Diversity wants wildlife habitat protected better and predators preserved. Ranchers, hunters, hikers, anglers, loggers, four-wheelers and mountain bikers — the people who make their living from the land, or define their lives by how they recreate on the land — all have their own views. And all those groups agree that the system works only if they all respect the rule of law.

Managing the extremists is one of the hardest tasks, said Ruch, who represents public employees. He’s had to hire personal injury attorneys for employees who are attacked. One Forest Service employee was thrown out of a meeting in Catron County, N.M., in the 1990s. The attorney Rich hired sued in civil court for assault on behalf of the employee when the agency would not. The accused paid a settlement and the intimidation stopped.

“Our boy left with green in his jeans,” Ruch said.

Suckling and Boyle share the view that the agencies need to engage better. Suckling wants employees with federal agencies to get out front and tell their story. But because of law enforcement and safety concerns, the agencies asked staff not to talk about the 2014 Nevada standoff or about Malheur until later.

During critical periods of tension, the federal land managers were silent. That means the public and local government officials haven’t heard the employees’ stories about how most are doing the best they can to respond to local concerns and protect resources for all Americans.

Even though she wants to scrap the federal land management system in the West, Boyle said everyone needs to listen to the voices on the ground. And ranchers, corporations, local officials and state leaders need to listen to the federal employees.

“You cannot ignore people when they have legitimate grievances,” Boyle said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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