Oregon stand-off: A bid to roll back federal land policy

BURNS (Oregon) • They used to call it Bundyville, a dot of the arid Wild West where in 1916 a Mormon pioneer named Abraham Bundy staked out a homestead in a sea of northern Arizona sagebrush. Settlers caught rainwater in tanks and grazed their livestock across public land that had yet to be brought under government control.

That place is mostly a ghost town today, gradually abandoned after the nation set up a system of grazing permits and regulations to curb overgrazing on public land. But shards of Bundyville have stuck with the branch of the family that made its way to Nevada, where it became the face of unyielding, armed protest over how Washington manages western lands.

And now a little piece of Bundyville has re-emerged in east-central Oregon, in the temper and tone of a Bundy family-led crew of armed, anti-government acolytes who are occupying a federal wildlife reserve, calling for Washington to hand control of federal lands to ranchers and local governments and seeking to unwind a century of policy that has shaped the west.

The rural economy has stuttered in recent years in places like Burns, and the Bundys say it is because of the government. They want to roll it back. "It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining, the farmer back to farming - and to jump-start this economy in Harney County," Mr Ammon Bundy, leader of the occupation group at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

In 2014, a years-long dispute between Mr Bundy's father Cliven and federal officials over his livestock's illegal grazing on public land erupted into an armed confrontation. And Mr Ammon Bundy's group now echoes the terms of that conflict: Who controls the land in the west?

Mr Ammon Bundy, a soft-spoken man, is treated with deference by his followers. Mr Ryan Payne, an army veteran from Montana, was part of the armed crew that seized the refuge last Saturday. He said the occupiers had been galvanised by the case of two local ranchers sentenced to additional jail time after being convicted of burning federal lands near their property.

"The idea is power: Land is power," Mr Payne said in a phone interview. "The federal government unconstitutionally laid claim to land within the United States."

But not all support that. "It's totally against the law," said long-time Burns resident Trent Tiller.

Those surrounding Mr Bundy appear to have in common a reverence for the Constitution. Almost all white and male, they have taken jobs scanning the terrain from a watchtower, serving as guards and preparing food.

While Mr Bundy and his inner circle have vowed to stay put until they are satisfied, other protesters like Mr Michael Stettler, 49, an electrician, joined the protest because law enforcement authorities had not intervened so far. But at the first hint of serious intent, he said, he would head home. "I'm not taking a bullet," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Oregon stand-off: A bid to roll back federal land policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe