In one sense, Ammon Bundy and his little militia, riding around Oregon’s federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge and posing for cameras looking steely-eyed, are the cowboy version of black-clad anarchists — the kind who occasionally wreak havoc in downtown Olympia.
Both – one from the right wing, the other from the left – display the same kind of adolescent opposition to authority and the same contempt for public property.
Bundy’s troops just don’t see the contradiction between their mantra of returning land to “the people” and their hatred of the federal government, which is, after all, “the people” writ large. In their view, “the people” consists solely of themselves and their rancher buddies, and to hell with the birdwatchers, tourists, townspeople and taxpayers who might want to visit this major migratory flyway and resting area for 320 bird species.
You don’t have to love the federal government to recognize that it’s a better steward of public lands than Bundy and his pals would be.
Bundy is not alone, however, in chafing at federal control of vast tracts of land; a conservative group called the American Lands Council is campaigning in legislatures across the West for turning over federal lands to states and counties. This effort, financed in part by the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, would allow state and local governments to sell public land to private parties not only for cattle grazing, but also mining, logging and oil drilling.
That effort seeks to reverse the tide that started in the 1960s. Environmental concerns led to reductions in the intensity of those activities on federal land in order to protect plant and animal species and support other uses, such as recreation. This inevitably angered cattle ranchers.
Some, like Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, don’t think the government has a right to charge grazing fees on federal land, which led to a standoff in 2014, when he owed over $1 million. Federal officials backed down in the face of an armed band of his followers. He still hasn’t paid, and he’s still grazing his cattle on federal land.
That certainly makes us wonder how the current standoff will end. In its third week, townspeople in Burns, Oregon, are asking Bundy to leave, and people all over Oregon have held rallies demanding their ouster.
There’s been plenty of speculation about how this might have been different if Bundy and his band were black or Muslim, and lots of dark humor labeling them “Vanilla ISIS” and “Y’all Qaida.”
But the federal government is weirdly timid, fearing that evicting them from the wildlife refuge might require a shoot-out between the feds and Bundy’s band that could make martyrs of them and inspire their imitators.
To uphold the principle of equal justice under the law, the federal government needs to act — against the occupation of the refuge, and against illegal grazing and unpaid grazing fees.
Without a doubt, the Bundys and their militia are as criminally idiotic as the anarchists who broke the windows at City Hall last year. And like any other criminal gang, they deserve to be arrested and prosecuted — as soon as they can be disarmed safely. .