This is Not Your Land
"This land is your land, this land is my land." The self-styled "militia" that initiated an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge near Burns seems to be misinterpreting the meaning of Woody Guthrie's classic American folk song, "This Land (Was Made for You & Me)."
Rather than suggesting that America's natural landscapes belong to individual interests—as the protesters holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge seem to believe—Guthrie promotes free and open access to public lands.
And while the occupation, led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy—sons of embattled rancher Cliven Bundy, who made headlines during a heated standoff with law enforcement over his refusal to pay leasing fees for the federal land on which his cattle graze—say they are protesting government over-reach and land grabbing, they are committing the very acts they object to.
The occupation, and the peaceful protest that preceded it, have been billed as objections to the mandatory minimum sentences handed down to local ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were convicted of intentionally setting fire to public lands, putting some 139 acres out of commission for two years.
But the statements and actions of those gathered near Burns make clear that they are motivated more by paranoia and a sense of entitlement than patriotism. Even groups that support their larger aims are distancing themselves from the protesters.
The Hammonds, the Oath Keepers, the Mormon Church, the people of neighboring Burns and Hines—all have made a point to say that the armed militants do not speak for them. And whether or not that's a heartfelt sentiment, it's a wise one to promote, because the ultimate goal of the group is nothing less than the overthrow of the federal government. When the Bundys say that the 1.7 million acre Malheur National Forest should be handed over to "the people," they don't mean the public broadly, but rather a specific group of people seeking to profit off those lands—namely ranchers, loggers, and miners. So while the militants accuse the federal government of land grabbing, they are the ones trying to restrict the use of that public land.
Still, it's easy to see how the Bundy militia is succeeding in securing followers—and it's worth noting that a large caravan gathered in Bend last Saturday before heading out to Burns for the peaceful protest. Ammon claims that the occupation seeks to get the people of Harney County—whose lives were, in many ways, upended by the recession and other economic forces—back to work.
He says in a video recording that he wants to get "loggers back to logging, ranchers back to ranching and miners back to mining," noting that the county has gone from one of the state's richest to one of the poorest.
To those rural Oregonians who have seen their fortunes fall due to the drying up of natural resource-related jobs, the prospect of again earning their living off the land is no doubt an appealing one. But in the end, it's all smoke and mirrors. The land in question already belongs to the public, and if we're really trying to return it to its rightful owners, the Paiute tribe already has first dibs.
This uninvited occupation is a misguided attempt to win support for a losing proposition. But unfortunately, it's not just the protesters who stand to suffer. As schools and government offices remain closed, and locals compare the action to a hostage situation, it's clear that Bundy and friends are engaged in a selfish showdown that has little to do with the legitimate concerns of rural Oregonians.