Op-ed: The wildlife refuge putsch

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, January 6, 2016 4:45pm
  • Opinion

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge hasn’t heretofore been known as a locus of government tyranny or much of anything else.

Saying that the refuge, established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, is in the middle of nowhere makes it sound too centrally located. It is in Southeastern Oregon, about 30 miles from the nearest town of Burns, population 2,722.

Now the Bundy family — notorious for its standoff with the feds at the family’s Nevada ranch last year — and sundry anti-government protesters have occupied the refuge and pronounced it the staging ground for an offensive against an oppressive federal government.

Before the Bundys showed up, the most notable events at Malheur were sightings of buffleheads, long-billed curlews, bobolinks and black-necked stilts. Ammon Bundy vows to stay in the wildlife preserve “for years” (let’s hope for his sake he has Netflix and a really good data plan). If the protesters hold out until April, they will disrupt the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival — and strike a mighty blow against the region’s birders.

What brought the Bundys to Oregon is the case of the Hammonds, ranchers who were subjected to what appears to be a vindictive and unnecessary federal prosecution. The case deserves attention and protest, but the Bundys and their allies have brought discredit to the cause with their unlawful occupation of Malheur.

Dwight and Steven Hammond of Harney County were convicted a couple of years ago for lighting two fires on their ranch (for entirely innocent reasons, they maintained) that spread onto federal property, causing negligible damage. The second fire burned all of an acre of public land. For this, they were, amazingly enough, prosecuted under an anti-terrorism statue and sent to jail. They served brief sentences that were less than what’s required under the mandatory minimum because the trial judge thought five years for each of them would be wildly disproportionate.

Nonetheless, the government appealed the sentences, and now the Hammonds — the father, Dwight, is 73, and his son, Steven, 46 — will serve roughly another four years in prison each. The Oregon Farm Bureau, not hitherto known for its terroristic sympathies, has taken up their case. The prosecution of the Hammonds comes against the backdrop of federal highhandedness and hostility to private economic activity allegedly in the area around the Malheur refuge specifically and certainly in the West generally.

A protest in favor of the family over the weekend drew hundreds, who peaceably assembled, made their point and dispersed. The Bundys then split off to take over the (unstaffed) headquarters at the wildlife refuge. The Hammonds say the occupiers don’t speak for them, and efforts to recruit the locals to join the takeover have been notably unsuccessful.

Occupations of buildings are fairly typical in campus protests, although that doesn’t make what is happening at the Malheur refuge any less distasteful. Justifying the occupation, Ammon Bundy says that “it is the people’s facility, owned by the people.” True enough, but so are the Smithsonian, the Department of Health and Human Services, and NORAD, which doesn’t mean it is right for aggrieved groups to take over any of them.

More sinister is the talk from Ryan Bundy, another of the family’s brothers, of potentially resisting by force if law enforcement tries to remove them. One hopes that this is self-dramatizing bluster, which is an occupational hazard of the kind of people who establish revolutionary enclaves. Last year, the Bundy ranch protesters were riven by rumors of imminent government drone attacks — having evidently mistaken southeastern Nevada for the badlands of Yemen.

The federal government’s overweening policies in the West, and the related injustice apparently done to the Hammonds, are serious matters. The proper remedy in a free society of laws is, as always, to be found in peaceful agitation and persuasion, and ultimately the ballot box. Play-acting a revolution will only bring derision — and should anyone take it too seriously, much worse.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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