For the birds: Oregon standoff pits feds against rural Americans

Media and satellite trucks are seen at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 4, 2016 © Jim Urquhart
The militia occupation of a federal building in Oregon is casting a new light on the friction caused by federal ownership of land in twelve western US states, and a growing disconnect between the East Coast establishment and rural Americans.

So far, the federal authorities have not mobilized in force against the militia group, calling itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” The group seized a building at the federally owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, after a protest in the nearby town of Burns.

READ MORE: Standoff between militia, feds at Oregon wildlife refuge (LIVE UPDATES)

On Tuesday, an unnamed US official based in Washington, DC told the Guardian that the government had been planning to shut off the power and kill phone service at the refuge, describing the area as the “middle of nowhere.”

“Then they’ll block all the roads so that all those guys have a long, lonely winter to think about what they’ve done,” the official reportedly said.

However, at least two US officials denied the existence of such a plan later in the day, according to Oregon Public Radio. Reporters for OPR also said they had “been fed bad information, bad words, platitudes to manipulate, and all the stuff going into a story with tons of agendas.”

Whoever the official quoted by the Guardian might be, his or her remarks illustrate the depth of the misunderstanding between the US capital and the residents of Western states where the federal government owns up to 80 percent of all land. Federal holdings west of the Mississippi amount to nearly a third of the US – 630 million acres. This is more than the landmass of California, Florida, New York and Texas combined, according to The Atlantic.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for 35.9 percent of those land holdings, while less than 12 percent is managed by the National Park Service, the magazine reported, citing data from the US Geological Survey.

In Harney County, where the Malheur refuge is located, some three quarters of all land is owned by the federal government. The few exceptions include ranches like the one owned by the Hammond family, whose troubles with the BLM served as a catalyst for this week’s standoff.

“The BLM wants that land bad and they'll probably end up getting it,” Tim Slate, a butcher from Burns, told Reuters. "The federal government wants to take over the state of Oregon and turn it into a park."

Dwight Hammond and his son Steven were prosecuted by the federal authorities over two fires that started on their property but spilled over onto government land, affecting a total of 140 acres. The government wants the ranchers to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, since they were convicted of arson under a terrorism statute.

The armed group occupying the refuge has stated that its aim is "to restore and defend the Constitution," to protect the rights of ranchers, and start a national debate about states' rights and federal land-use policy, Reuters reported. They hope their actions will compel the federal government to sell some of its large land holdings in the west.

“We have been very active in forwarding our plan and assisting the people of Harney County in claiming and using their rights," militia leader Ammon Bundy said on Tuesday, according to The Oregonian.

Harney County Sheriff David Ward has rejected the militia claim that they were helping the locals, though, calling on the group to “leave our community, go home to your families, and end this peacefully," Reuters reported.

While the federal authorities have been largely silent on their response, Twitter suspended Bundy’s account on Tuesday afternoon.

On the popular social media platform, most of the reactions to the militia occupation have been hostile, with some comparing the group to terrorists and others pointing out that the government would have reacted quickly and forcefully if the armed men were Muslims or minorities.

While the occupation of the refuge is illegal, the group’s actions “do not rise to the level of terrorism, and they certainly do not warrant the use of violent or lethal force by the government,” argued libertarian blogger Eric Schuler in response.

Using such force would be wrong in this case, just as it is wrong when police uses lethal force against minorities, Schuler wrote. “Equal oppression is not the goal; equal justice is.”

The Malheur (French for “misfortune”) refuge was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, with the aim of protecting the birds from hunters who were selling their plumes to the hat industry, Fox News reported. It has since expanded to 300 square miles.