No Good Guys

There are no good guys to cheer for in the militia takeover of an Oregon federal office building on January 2. The ostensible issue is the re-sentencing of two Oregon ranchers–Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond–for arson, while the underlying issue is federal land ownership of much of the West.

The arson fires lit by the Hammonds in 2001 and 2006 may have actually represented sensible land management, but the Hammonds lost the high ground by their failure to coordinate with the government agency managing the land they burned. Prescribed fire is a tool used to improve wildlife habitat, increase land productivity, and control wildfire. The 2001 fire aimed at improving productivity, but the government says the ranchers didn’t bother informing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) they planned to burn until two hours after they lit the fire. While they lit the fire on their own land, it escaped and burned 139 acres of federal land, but that fire probably did not do serious damage to the grassland and they put the fire out themselves.

The 2006 fire was more questionable. A wildfire was burning on BLM land near the Hammond’s ranch, so to defend their land they lit a backfire on their own land. That would be standard procedure except, again, they didn’t tell anyone and when their fire crossed over onto federal land it endangered firefighters who the Hammonds apparently knew were located between the wildfire and their backfire. Due to severe fire hazards, the county had a no-burn rule which the Hammonds apparently violated, but this was hardly a terrorist act.

For these actions, they were sentenced to a year in jail, which may have been appropriate considering they endangered people’s lives. But the federal government, citing an anti-terrorism law that sets a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for arson on federal land, demanded that they be re-sentenced. Having already served the first year, they were scheduled to be re-incarcerated for four more years after the New Year. It is always disturbing when the federal government uses laws aimed at foreign terrorists to oppress citizens who have political differences of opinion with government policy. The Hammonds, who have paid $400,000 in fine related to the fires they lit, probably should not have been re-sentenced to four more years in prison, but that’s a problem with mandatory sentencing laws and aggressive prosecutors, not federal land management.

Enter Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose use of BLM land in that state became a hot issue in 2014. The Bundys and their allies believe that federal land should belong to the states or the ranchers themselves since the ranchers have grazed their cattle on it for so many generations. Thus, they ignored limits the BLM placed on the number of cattle they could graze on federal land near their ranch and refused to pay legally mandated fees for grazing those cattle.

Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes the federal government to control land in the nation’s capital, but nowhere else. If you believe that any power not granted to the federal government belongs to the states, then the Bundys are correct. However, the federal government has owned land outside the capital since 1790, when Alexander Hamilton convinced the states to yield land west of the Appalachians in exchange for federal assumptions of state debt. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson himself questioned the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase even as he persuaded the Senate to approve it.

The Supreme Court has heard hundreds of cases involving federal land and has never ruled that the Constitution does not allow the federal government to own land in the West. So any battle against federal ownership would have to fought politically, not in the courts.

That may be what Bundy and his friends think they are doing. Their “capture” of a Fish & Wildlife Service building that was closed for the holidays might be a way to raise public awareness of alleged federal mistreatment of ranchers, just as tree sitters raised public awareness of issues related to old-growth forests in the 1980s. The problem with this tactic is that 90 percent of western residents are urbanites who are much more likely to sympathize with spotted owls and sandhill cranes than with cattle and sheep.

Decades ago, ranchers grazing their livestock on public lands paid enough fees to earn the Forest Service a profit. But in 1978, ranchers persuaded Congress to adopt a grazing fee formula on national forests and BLM lands that is designed to guarantee ranchers a profit even as it costs taxpayers more than $100 million per year. Thus, many people, including some agency officials, view the ranchers as freeloaders and their livestock as invasive species damaging the habitat for native fish and wildlife.

The Hammonds shouldn’t have lit the 2006 fire without coordinating with the BLM. The federal government shouldn’t have prosecuted them for prescribed burning using an anti-terrorist law. The Bundys shouldn’t have occupied the Fish & Wildlife Service office.

Property rights advocates who want to change public views need to find ranchers more appealing than the Bundys, who want to overgraze other people’s land without paying for the right to do so, or the Hammonds, whose unauthorized fire on federal lands threatened firefighters’ lives. Without better representatives–preferably ones willing to pay their own way and not rely on taxpayer subsidies–they won’t be able to capture the hearts and minds of the American people, which means the future of ranchers who depend on federal lands is dim.


4 thoughts on “No Good Guys

  1. FrancisKing

    I agree, there are no good guys.

    The gunmen claim to be upholding the constitution. But the whole point of the constitution is to have something that can be dealt with via the courts, not via the barrel of a gun.–W1b0NMi0sg

    They are also unbelievably useless.–ZJglh9sRjx

    I’m not convinced about people being retrospectively imprisoned because the sentence was unduly lenient. This should have been challenged at the time of initial sentence.

  2. Sandy Teal

    The poaching accusation bothers me more than the arson accusations. I agree the arson claims are weak and hardly terrorism. But I have no respect for people who just wantonly shoot animals. It is not a good idea to have these people as symbols for the debate on federal ownership of so much land.

    P.S. I have heard about the poaching claims, but I don’t know how strong the evidence is.

  3. Sandy Teal

    P.P.S. Liberals have a innate urge to “label” everything with an “ism” and “ist”, so it is currently a huge deal right now whether these guys are “terrorists”. I don’t care about labels and this is far different than ISIS in many important ways, such as we don’t get body scans in airports because of these guys. But if you live in NYC and are terrorized to know that some yahoos with guns are camping next to a government cabin in rural Oregon, than call it what you want.

  4. Frank

    Poaching in this context isn’t the “wanton” shooting of animals. In this case, it was shooting deer (probably to be consumed as meat) either out of season or without a license.

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