What does victory look like for armed Oregon refuge occupiers?

The longer the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is occupied, the more attention the group's complaints get. How will this end? 

(AP Photo/Keith Ridler)
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., is seen from atop an old fire lookout on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. A small, armed group has been occupying the refuge since Jan. 2 to protest federal land use policies.

The arrest Friday of a Oregon chainsaw artist associated with the armed Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover in Oregon marked the first open action by the US government against the states’ rights occupiers who have now held federally-managed land for 15 days.

Whether the arrest of protester Kenneth Medenbach for illegally using a federal vehicle is part of a move by federal agents to squeeze the occupation is not known; so far authorities have kept their distance from the refuge and its occupiers., though Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said “the hourglass is running.”

But while many experts call the government’s caution wise, there’s evidence that the passage of time has only strengthened sympathy for the underlying complaints, which include an end to “economic warfare” against Westerners and transfer of federally managed backcountry lands to states.

“Many who criticized [the] takeover have begun to voice support, even admiration, for the amount of attention the occupation has brought to the underlying grievances,” Carli Brosseau wrote this week in an expose in the Oregonian of how the occupation took shape.

To be sure, many Americans still want the government to round up the occupiers and reestablish federal control. Mollycoddling armed white militiamen, they say, only encourages extremism.

But even as time passes on the frozen refuge, stereotypes have begun to falter, and the debate shift. New York Times reporter Julie Turkewitz calls the occupation “the wild westiest story I have ever covered,” where cowboys, barbers and air conditioning repairmen wile away their days at their impromptu communal ranch.

Indeed, if there is to be a peaceful end game to the Oregon standoff, observers say, it will most likely revolve around Americans acknowledging more deeply the fundamental, even existential, complaints of the dissident ranchers – and understanding how even a benevolent central government headed by coastal elites can start to seem “tyrannical” in how it deals with those clawing a living from sparse Western plateaus.

“People on social media are saying, ‘If this was Wounded Knee, a thousand FBI agents would be there; if this were Baltimore, people would already be dead,’” says Catherine McNicol Stock, a Connecticut College professor and author of “Rural Radicals.” But “if you don’t take people and concerns seriously, you’re missing a big opportunity to understand the whole culture and society that we live in, which includes places where 99 percent of Americans will never go,” such as the back roads of the American West.

The protest is spearheaded by Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, had an armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014 over millions owed in grazing fees. Washington backed down, and Bundy has yet to pay the fees. Emboldened by that victory, Ammon Bundy has ratcheted up the stakes in Oregon. The demands are broader, and deeper, and more fundamental – and unlikely to be heeded, at least not without potentially years of legislative work.

Bundy said this week that he’s not surprised by shifting sympathies.

"We wanted to show the community that we were committed, that we were putting ourselves on the line and would stand hard," he said. "We knew we had to gain the confidence of the community and we knew it would take several days, a week or so, for the community to work through it.”

The Hammond family – who many say have been treated unfairly in an arson case involving federal lands – at first pushed back at the refuge takeover, calling it a double-cross by Bundy and his compatriots. Many national politicians saw it as a quicksand scenario and stayed far away. The White House called an armed encampment on federal lands a “local law enforcement matter.” Those who did comment, like Republican presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, condemned the actions of the occupiers but sympathized, at least in broad terms, with parts of their argument.

Polls show that most Westerners are fine with the federal government managing 50 percent of their lands – over 600 million acres. And in Oregon and elsewhere, federal managers say the government works closely with local resource users, and manages to compromise in at least 90 percent of conflicts.

But there’s also a grinding sense that broader federal management – which has increasingly limited the availability of resources for profit in the last 30 years – is waging “economic warfare” as the West has gained more than the South on national poverty indices.

In a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor, US Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican whose district encompasses the Malheur refuge and environs, cited federal timber policy in Oregon as one factor.

A major complaint in Oregon is that federal timber harvests have fallen in the state by 90 percent since 1988, two years before the spotted owl was first put on the threatened species list, in turn putting additional pressure on private timber resources to supply a growing demand for house-building materials. 

And while timber felling on private lands has fluctuated with the market, “federal forest management defies economics,” according to a 2014 editorial in the Roseburg News-Review, given that the government constricted sales during the 2004 housing boom and then sold nearly twice as much in the recession year of 2009.

“So, it’s just one thing after another that you would never do on your private land, nor would the state do on state forest land, nor do counties do on their county forest land,” says Rep. Walden. “But for some reason, the federal government has become a slum lord.”

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has chided the occupiers’ strategy for going on “too long” and that allowing people to take over federal land “means you don’t have a government anymore.”

But this week, one of Mr. Trump’s campaign officials, Jerry DeLemus, traveled on his own dime to Oregon to size up the protest. He came away impressed – and intended to have a conversation with Trump about it. Mr. DeLemus told Reuters that Bundy’s group is enjoying “great success” in resisting the “thug-like, terroristic” actions of the federal government by pushing for transfer of public lands.

After all, “what Trump supporters want is dramatic action, and for some, what’s happening in Oregon is an example of that,” Dan Shea, an expert on the polarization of American voters at Colby College in Maine, told Reuters.

Such feelings are multiplied, ranchers say, by actions such as those taken by the US Attorney’s Office against the Hammonds. The father-son duo were originally sentenced to a few months in jail for allowing fires to burn onto federal property, but federal prosecutors appealed the sentence under post-9/11 terrorism guidelines, getting another judge to approve a five-year prison sentence. The state judge had called that sentence “unconscionable” given how little actual damage was done.

“America really needed to hear [the Hammonds’] story regardless of the court process," Jeff Roberts, an organizer from the Grants Pass aream, told The Oregonian. "They're not terrorists. They're ranching families in rural Oregon."

To be sure, there are still calls for the government to forcibly remove and arrest the group. The local Burns Paiute Tribe, which originally occupied the lands in question, has been particularly tough-minded. “Armed protesters don’t belong here,” Charlotte Rodrique, the chairwoman of the tribe, said in a Friday statement. “They should be held accountable.”

To be sure, it’s still far from clear whether the occupiers will see any of their demands met. And while waiting it out has its own potential pitfalls for Washington, "the government realizes … the only possible victory is to allow it to dissipate,” UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler told OregonLive.com recently.

The scope of the occupiers’ complaints, however, may be too big to just ignore.

“These are people’s lives and when you take away people’s livelihoods they become a little bit desperate, which drives this kind of radical response,” says Phil Lyman, a county commissioner in rural San Juan County, Utah.

Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer contributed from Washington, D.C.

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