In Boston over 200 years ago, a group of American patriots dressed and painted like Indians smashed crates and dumped tea into the city’s harbor. In today’s American West, protesters ride their ATVs into publicly owned canyons to protest federal restriction of motorized access, and more recently, grazing-fee opponents forcibly “occupy” the desks of wildlife biologists. In a different spirit of protest not so long ago, a young man quietly disrupted the sale of oil and gas leases to save two national parks from industrial development.
For centuries, protesters committed to their causes have broken the law and changed the United States, sometimes for the better. But to earn a place in American history, I think protesters must be willing to accept their punishment. Justice must also be meted out evenly, and that has not been the case in the West.
In May 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and Monticello City Councilman Monte Wells encouraged owners of all-terrain vehicles to come to Blanding, Utah. They asked supporters to help them ride through Recapture Canyon, where locals had built an illegal trail through ancient archaeological sites. The Bureau of Land Management had closed the area to motorized use in 2007, in an effort to prevent motorized vehicles from doing more damage to cultural artifacts.
Some years earlier, in 2008, college student Tim DeChristopher walked into a federal auction of oil and gas leases and took up wooden paddle #70. In an effort to halt drilling near the boundaries of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, he effectively rendered the sale moot by bidding $1.8 million for 14 leases that he never intended to purchase.
For this act of civil disobedience, DeChristopher was convicted of a felony, sentenced to two years in prison, and fined $10,000. The prosecutor said piously, “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in the name of the cause of the day.” Yet U.S. District Judge Dee Benson stated that if it were not for DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” after the auction, in which he justified his actions, he might have plea-bargained and avoided prosecution. It is worth noting that the Obama administration eventually dismissed 87 of the 116 oil and gas leases in question, which had been offered by the Bush administration, citing the wilderness value of public land adjacent to two popular national parks.
Nonetheless, the judge threw the book at DeChristopher, who served 21 months in a Colorado prison for his climate-change activism. He has since co-founded the environmental group, Peaceful Uprising.
A different judge in Utah showed a great deal more tolerance when ruling on the illegal ATV ride into Recapture Canyon. Lyman’s sentence: 10 days in a county jail in St. George, Utah, payment of a $1,000 fine, and probation for three years. The two men were also ordered to pay $96,000, payable over several years, in restitution for damaging government property. Unhappy with his mild sentence, Lyman recently announced that he plans to appeal the judge’s verdict.
Ten days in jail for Lyman, 21 months for DeChristopher. A $1,000 fine for Lyman and $10,000 for DeChristopher. The bedrock of American law seems not to be all that solid in Utah’s red-rock canyon country.
The same U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah that insisted on making an example out of DeChristopher to “deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior” issued only a slap on the wrist for an armed ATV invasion on public land that challenged federal authority. Yet how can raising a wooden bidder’s paddle be called a felony while breaking a closure order to drive over archaeological sites be considered a misdemeanor?
Now we have an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge near Burns, Oregon. When asked about legal charges against the occupiers, retired Oregon U.S. Attorney Kris Olson said she thought anti-terrorism laws had been broken.
“I’m also thinking of laws such as the ones prohibiting theft and destruction of federal property,” Olson continued. “There may be several federal firearms statutes that would apply, depending on the nature and permitting of the weapons brought across state lines and the intent in transporting them. Conspiracy may also tie these acts and defendants together.”
Olson is saying that these actions merit serious federal charges with potentially serious consequences. Yet in the past, men wearing cowboy hats and waving guns around have not been prosecuted nearly as severely as environmentalists. That may prove true in the near future, too, depending on what happens once the Oregon standoff ends.
Disagreements over the use of publicly owned land in the West seem to be constant, and passionate protesters will continue to challenge federal rules. That is every American’s constitutional right, but let’s have justice, too.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College, email@example.com.