Jury deliberates in Malheur standoff case, as land use questions linger

Some activists argue that the federal government should cede control of forests and grazing pastures back to the states, an idea embraced by the armed occupiers who took over the Malheur refuge. 

Don Ryan/AP/File
Protesters gather outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., during the trial for the Bundy brothers and five others, Sept. 13, 2016.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys wrapped up two days of closing arguments late Wednesday in the trial of six men and one woman charged with conspiracy in the armed takeover and 41-day occupation of a wildlife preserve in rural Oregon earlier this year.

As the jury began deliberating Thursday in Portland, residents of the region were left wrestling with the political and economic questions central to the Malheur occupation saga – particularly whether the federal government, which owns a majority of the land in Oregon and other western states, should cede more control of these forests and grazing pastures back to the states.

Ammon Bundy, who led the ranchers to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was merely protesting what he considered tyrannical federal land-management policies, argued his defense attorney, Marcus Mumford.

"Is it illegal to tell the government to respect its limits?" Mr. Mumford asked the jurors. "Is it illegal to tell the government to respect the Constitution?"

In recent years, the Obama administration has used the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to unilaterally designate large swaths of land as public preservations, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in February. While some have praised the executive orders setting aside hundreds of millions of acres of land and water, others have complained of federal overreach. Republicans, especially, have rallied around the issue.

Last year, some 37 bills favoring local land control were introduced in 11 state legislatures.

Assistant US Attorney Ethan Knight, arguing for the prosecution, said Mr. Bundy had broken the law and armed the wildlife refuge as a type of "fortress" from which he pressed a political agenda.

Mumford contended that his client was defending freedom.

"You are the heart and lungs of liberty," Mumford told jurors during a nearly four-hour-long presentation. "Only you can make clear that Mr. Bundy is not a conspirator and none of these men and women are conspirators."

While the ranchers may be imperfect messengers, they highlighted the point that poverty in the west has been rising even as it has fallen in the south – a message that could garner public support, as the Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported in January:

... the plight of poor, mostly white Americans languishing under the thumb of federal land managers provides a poignant insight into recent economic trends as well as a centuries-old fight over land use in the west, one which could, some say, provide these Western range riders common cause with other groups of marginalized Americans.

The prospect that the occupiers might find a sympathetic audience grew, some observers said, when law enforcement shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who had previously promised not to surrender without a fight, as he reached inside his jacket after police stopped one of the group's vehicles.

"The risk here is that you had people who were basically perceived by the public as clowns, and now an incident like this can shift that perception and give them what they wanted, which is the status of martyr and victim," Michael German, a former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups in the 1990s and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, told the Monitor in January.

Mumford, the defense attorney, cited evidence that nine government informants were present at the refuge during the occupation, providing information to federal law enforcement while also influencing the course of events. He argued that federal officials were trying to manipulate both the occupiers and public perception.

In addition to protesting federal control over vast portions of public land, the occupiers say they were acting in solidarity with two Oregon ranchers punished in an arson case.

Each of the seven defendants currently on trial faces up to six years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charge alone; they also face charges of possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property. More than two dozen people have been charged in connection with the occupation, and a trial for a second group of defendants is scheduled for February.

After the current trial in Oregon, Bundy and his brothers face assault, conspiracy, and other charges stemming from a separate 2014 standoff with law enforcement in Nevada, which took place at the cattle ranch owned by their father, controversial rancher and activist Cliven Bundy. The elder Mr. Bundy is currently awaiting trial for charges from the 2014 standoff, which developed over a years-long dispute about unpaid grazing fees.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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