Most of the ranchers I know are decent folks, men and women of a few well-chosen words, slow to rouse, distrustful of a show horse on four legs or two. And then there’s the armed gang who seized an Oregon bird sanctuary — Y’all Qaeda, as the twittersphere has dubbed them.
The leader, Ammon Bundy, is the son of Cliven Bundy, the deadbeat rancher and Fox News hero who still owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. The elder Bundy says he doesn’t recognize the government. The younger Bundy recognized it enough to get a federal loan guarantee for his fleet repair business in the rugged sprawl of Phoenix.
Ammon Bundy says God drove him to break into the offices of an agency that works on behalf of pileated woodpeckers, yellow warblers and other avian wonders. Bundy’s not leaving, he says, until land that we own — that is, every American citizen — is taken from us and given to some unnamed private entity.
Yes, it’s comical — white privilege mixed with a “Hee Haw” parody. The only thing Bundy and his fellow burglars have accomplished thus far is to leave behind enough evidence for prosecutors to file numerous criminal charges against them.
But this Gang That Can’t Protest Straight is not far removed from a better-dressed crowd in Congress pushing for radical change in the nation’s public land endowment. The locked-and-loaded crazies in the Oregon high desert are using the same language as Republican legislators who want to take away an American birthright.
On Wednesday, leading Republicans in Washington expressed sympathy for the ideas behind the criminal takeover. “You have a frustration that they feel the federal government is not listening to them anymore,” said Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho, a Tea Party favorite.
The goal of Labrador and other far-right politicians from the West is similar to the demands of the Bundy gang. Earlier this year a group led by Representative Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced plans to “develop a legislative framework for transferring public land to local ownership and control.”
Bishop said he wanted to find a way “to return these lands back to their rightful owners.” It’s the identical language used by the militants. “We have research teams finding out who this land was taken from and who it needs to be sent back to,” said one of the occupiers, Jon Rizheimer
Um, the Indians? Well, yes, Paiutes had been living on the well-watered desert sanctuary for at least 6,000 years, until whites kicked them off. This week the Paiutes told the Bundy gang to go away, and said they looked to the federal government as protectors of their cultural artifacts.
“It just rubs me in the wrong way that we have a bunch of misinformed people in here,” said Charlotte Rodrique, the tribal chairwoman. “They’re not the original owners.”
It’s beyond the historical literacy of the anti-public-lands crowd to understand that. But they do understand the greater stakes. “The idea is power,” said Ryan Payne, another one of the occupiers in Oregon. “Land is power.”
Let’s talk about that power. The media shorthand for this staged event is an outdated stereotype of a Sagebrush Rebellion. In truth, an overwhelming majority of Westerners enjoy their public lands for all the things that the federal government protects for them — recreation, wildlife, history, open space, clean water.
The 47 million bird watchers in this country spend $40 billion a year to follow creatures whose lives are dependent on federal wildlife refuges. Imagine if a bunch of birders, lathered in sunscreen, their heads covered in floppy hats, took over a federal facility to protest the innumerable predations of wildlife habitat by cattle ranchers.
Birders generate 660,000 jobs, through trips and retail sales, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. By contrast, grazing allotments on federal public land number a bit more than 20,000. For those ranchers, the deal is a steal — about 90 percent cheaper than the market rate on private land in 16 Western states. We subsidize the ranchers, while a majority of our public land users generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and never threaten to kill a forest ranger.
That’s why only a handful of ranchers — Cliven Bundy being the best-known culprit — refuse to pay what most others do. But why, then, the push to privatize our great open spaces? It goes back to power.
Teddy Roosevelt framed the struggle in terms of the people against the exploiters. It was Roosevelt who created the wildlife refuge in Oregon, angering white squatters. The Supreme Court twice upheld the right of the government to protect the high desert.
The extremists, in Congress and the snows of Oregon, want to return to a 19th century world where blunt force — against Indians, wildlife, the public good — prevails. It’s a fantasy, costumed in western wear, except that the guns are real.