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The Oregon Standoff Is The Latest In A Long Line Of Revolts Over Western Land

While many in the West disagree with the decision to stage an armed occupation, complaints about government mismanagement of land enjoys widespread support in the rural West.

Posted on January 16, 2016, at 1:01 p.m. ET

Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 7.
Rob Kerr / AFP / Getty Images

Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 7.

Demar Dahl climbed onto a huge pile of rock and dirt lying in the middle of the road and looked out. Below him, hundreds of people stood at the ready, sweating under the July 4 sun, their heels digging into the dirt on the remote Nevada road.

Then over a loudspeaker, someone called out, "One, two, three, pull!"

The hundreds yelled back. As Dahl watched, the crowd heaved against ropes and chains they had tied to a massive boulder until it slid out of the way, carving a deep rut in the pale, dusty soil.

Dozens more people — men in brown cowboy hats, teens in denim overalls, moms in white high-tops — then rushed in, slicing away with shovels at the dirt left behind in the road. "One, two, three, pull!" the loudspeaker crackled again, and the whole action repeated, yanking another boulder out of the way. And it continued all day until finally the road was cleared.

Dahl was one of the organizers on that hot day in 2000 and said thousands came to join the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade for one reason: They were fed up with the federal government.

The boulders and dirt had been placed in the road by the U.S. Forest Service, which had developed a plan that included closing several roads in rural northeastern Nevada. Residents tried to get the Forest Service to reconsider, Dahl said, but without luck.

"When it all finished the Forest Service just thumbed their nose," he told BuzzFeed News. It was the last straw, and months later the "Shovel Rebellion" was born.

Nearly 16 years later, the road remains open and the so-called rebellion has simmered down, but the incident illustrates an important but oft-overlooked matter: The West has a long history of tension, and battles, between the federal government and locals who say their lifestyle is under assault. The Shovel Brigade, and the current armed standoff in Oregon, are both part of that story, but they're not the first chapters and they almost certainly won't be the last.

Supporters and members of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade move "Liberty Rock," opening the road to the Jarbidge Wilderness in northern Elko County, Nevada.
AP

Supporters and members of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade move "Liberty Rock," opening the road to the Jarbidge Wilderness in northern Elko County, Nevada.

The history of conflict in the West is long, complex, and heating up.

Martin Nie, a professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana, told BuzzFeed News that over the years there have been "flare-ups," and the West is characterized by "enduring tensions" over land use.

Those tensions go way back. As the U.S. expanded west during the 19th century, the federal government acquired vast stretches of land. The idea was that the land would be distributed to Americans, but by the late 1800s — Yellowstone was set aside as a national park in 1872, for example — views began to shift and conservation grew as a priority.

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A herd of elk graze in Yellowstone National Park in 1997.
Kevork Djansezian / ASSOCIATED PRESS

A herd of elk graze in Yellowstone National Park in 1997.

In 1946, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was formed when two earlier management agencies were merged. And in 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, which Nie said finally settled the question of what would happen with federal lands in the West. The answer: They would be retained by the government.

The years since 1976 have been tumultuous ones.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sagebrush Rebellion rose to prominence as, Nie said, various groups coalesced around their "hostility to federal lands management." The rebellion involved a push to force federal lands into the hands of the states, and included some acts of civil disobedience.

A decade later, there was a series of bombings directed at the U.S. Forest Service.

In the early 2000s, the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade emerged out of months of tension. And the Klamath Bucket Brigade, a group of farmers in Oregon, protested against water restrictions.

Then in 2014 a group of ranchers embarked on a cross-country horse ride to protest actions by the BLM.

That same year, Phil Lyman, a county commissioner in Utah's San Juan County, led a protest against the BLM by driving ATVs through Recapture Canyon, an area filled with ancient Native American sites that the federal agency had partially closed to motorized vehicles.

"Recapture was chosen because the BLM was basically ignoring their own rules and regulations," Lyman told BuzzFeed News. "You just can't trust the agency."

Demonstrators rode ATVs into Recapture Canyon in Utah on May 10, 2014, to protest what they called the federal government's overreaching control of public lands.
Trent Nelson / AP

Demonstrators rode ATVs into Recapture Canyon in Utah on May 10, 2014, to protest what they called the federal government's overreaching control of public lands.

The High Country News also reported in 2014 on a "pattern of hostility toward" government employees that involved people actually shooting at BLM agents.

Officials at the agency did not return BuzzFeed News' calls seeking comment.

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Harney County, where the Oregon standoff is taking place, is illustrative of these tensions.

The county is a vast area filled with ranches, farms, and what was once a thriving lumber industry. It encompasses more than 10,000 square miles, much of which is open space. With just 7,000 residents, there's only one person for every 1.4 miles of land.

And many of the ranches there — the backbone of the local economy — have been in family hands for about seven generations.

But most of the area is under federal control. According to the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, about 73% of the land is federally managed, which means the ranchers and anyone else whose livelihood depends on them are closely tied to the BLM or other federal agencies.

"To be able to support and sustain the cattle industry, we have a high dependence on the utilization of grazing permits that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management," Tom Sharp, a rancher and treasurer of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, told BuzzFeed News.

A bumper sticker against the BLM is seen on the truck of an anti-government militia member on Jan. 6, 2016, near Burns, Oregon.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bumper sticker against the BLM is seen on the truck of an anti-government militia member on Jan. 6, 2016, near Burns, Oregon.

To use public federal land, ranchers obtain grazing permits. The permits let them graze cattle, but restrictions on the permits — such as when and where they can use the land, and how many cattle they can graze — can deeply affect the business and finances of ranchers.

The permits usually span 10 years. Changes to the terms of the permits often depend largely on conservation efforts that might be taking place. As a recent example, efforts are underway to protect the sage grouse, a bird with a pointed tail that nests in grasslands often used by cattle.

Sharp said ranchers in the Harney County area made agreements with the government that were intended to protect the bird, and were designed to stave off more restrictive limits they could have faced if it ended up on the protected species list.

But after those agreements were reached, frustration spiked again in response to a proposed federal plan that could have further restricted grazing, Sharp said.

"They have the potential to enter restrictions to restrict or eliminate grazing on public grazing lands across the West," he told BuzzFeed News. "In a rancher's mind, how much more do you have to give?"

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A sage grouse is seen in an undated photo from the BLM.
Handout / Reuters

A sage grouse is seen in an undated photo from the BLM.

Opinion in Harney County about the standoff itself is divided. During a meeting earlier this month, many residents said they wanted the occupiers to go home.

Still, some locals share Sharp's frustration. On Wednesday, Harney County Fire Chief Chris Briels resigned and accused the BLM of grabbing land. He also criticized local leaders for refusing to allow a meeting that would have included Ammon Bundy on county property.

Briels' resignation — which he reportedly announced with Ammon Bundy by his side — was just the latest example of locals chafing under federal policy.

Another proposal that has rankled some in the area would establish the Owyhee Canyon Lands National Monument, which could affect about 2.5 million acres of existing federal land.

"They don't want it," Sharp said of the ranchers in the area. "They don't want to risk further restrictions and eliminations that may follow with the designation of this national monument."

National monuments are a particular point of contention in the West. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton designated a series of monuments, beginning with Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante, and gave the BLM jurisdiction over the land. The designations were unpoplar among some in the rural West who saw them as a move by the federal government to take greater control of the land.

Douglas C. Pizac / Associated Press
AFP / Getty Images
GEORGE FREY / Getty

Tourists and President Bill Clinton are seen at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Now, some ranchers who have been in Oregon for generations say they're concerned that the designation of a national monument could mean the elimination of 36% of grazing lands in Harney County.

"They are concerned for their lifestyle, their livelihoods," Sharp said. "There's no need for further protection for those lands."

Other limits, such as roads, access to water, fencing, and fire suppression in the area – often decided without local input – have only contributed to the frustration felt by several local ranchers.

"When you put that together, you begin to understand why the rancher feels that there is an overreach and an overbearing presence by the government out here in the West," Sharp said.

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Harney County isn't unique. The federal government owns a massive amount of land in the West.

The U.S. government owns a total of 640 million acres, but the vast majority of that land is concentrated in the West, according to the Congressional Research Service. In the 11 coterminous western states, the government owns 46.9% of all the land. In Nevada, the federal government owns more than 80% of the state, and in Oregon, where the militia standoff is taking place, it owns more than half of all the land.

Federation of American Scientists / Via fas.org

By comparison, the federal government owns only a tiny fraction of the land on the East Coast — just 2.1% of Pennsylvania, and a minuscule 0.3% of New York.

Lawmakers in the West are challenging the federal government, and in some cases scoring victories.

Conflicts like the one the Bundys are currently engaged in make national headlines, but for the past several years state legislators have been taking up the fight.

Last year in Colorado, a group of Republican lawmakers proposed a bill to study how federal lands might be turned over to the state and how the transfer can proceed in a "timely and orderly manner." Colorado State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg was one of the co-sponsors of the bill and told BuzzFeed News it came about because of ongoing disagreements between ranchers and the federal government.

"I think primarily it's coming to a head simply because we've seen what's happened with forest fires," he said. "We've seen what happened with federal control. We've seen farmers and ranchers lose their grazing access. The vast majority of ranchers and farmers in rural Colorado don't differ much from the rest of the ranchers and farmers in the West, and they have a stressed relationship with the feds."

The bill ultimately failed, but Sonnenberg said that probably isn't the end of the fight in his state.

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Jerry Sonnenberg speaks at the podium at the Colorado State Legislature in Denver on Jan. 22, 2014.
Brennan Linsley / AP

Jerry Sonnenberg speaks at the podium at the Colorado State Legislature in Denver on Jan. 22, 2014.

Similar efforts are going on in other states as well. In Montana, the state Republican Party's official platform includes calls for the feds to give up their land. And in Nevada, Dahl told BuzzFeed News, he and others have worked with lawmakers to craft both state and federal legislation designed to transfer public land to the states.

"It's a good bill — it's going to be a blessing in the lives of the people of Nevada," Dahl said of a proposed law currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress. If passed, it would direct the federal government to relinquish its land in Nevada.

Lawmakers from Oregon have expressed similar concerns. On Jan. 5, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden — who represents the region that includes Harney County — blasted federal land management while discussing the standoff on the House floor.

"I have seen what happens when overzealous bureaucrats and agencies go beyond the law and clamp down on people," he said. "What people don't understand is the culture, the lifestyle, of this great American West and how much these ranchers care about the environment, about their future, about their children, and about America."

Walden referred to interference from federal agencies as "arrogance," and said "this is a government that has gone too far, for too long."

Among all the West, Utah has taken legislative efforts the furthest. In 2012, the state passed a law demanding the federal government relinquish its land. State law can't force the hand of the federal government, of course, but Utah's strategy also involves filing a lawsuit against the feds.

A wild horse looks over a fence as BLM officials gather the animals south of Garrison, Utah, on Feb. 25, 2015.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

A wild horse looks over a fence as BLM officials gather the animals south of Garrison, Utah, on Feb. 25, 2015.

These efforts are controversial. Nie said many fear that turning over state lands would merely serve as a prelude to completely privatizing them — jeopardizing conservation efforts. That's a familiar argument across the West as well, and one many environmental groups have made in recent years.

Nie also criticized legislative battles like the one in Utah for lacking details on how the transfer would actually work.

Still, taking the long view of history, all these fights — both in the statehouses and out on the range — begin to look like branches from the same tree. Though the tactics and the players vary, the complaints are largely the same: government overreach, mismanagement of land, the economic hardships suffered by ranchers.

Significantly, then, when asked what he thought of the Bundys and the Hammonds — the now-imprisoned ranchers whose case prompted the Oregon standoff — Sonnenberg stopped short of a full endorsement but expressed sympathy for their situation.

"When you end up messing with someone's livelihood, someone who's been on a ranch for 100 years and now they have to deal with the federal government and the potential of losing their ranch, people are going to fight," Sonnenberg said. "And I understand that."

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Cattle feed in a pasture near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, Jan. 10.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Cattle feed in a pasture near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, Jan. 10.

Some say conditions, and conflicts, are getting more heated in the West.

Like all of the clashes in the region, the Oregon occupiers will eventually leave and the standoff will end. The issues and the angst, however, will persist.

Back in Utah, Lyman said that in recent years the relationship between locals and the feds have deteriorated.

"It seems like 20, 30 years ago the BLM, they were some of our best resources and best friends," he said. "I wouldn't say that they're our worst enemy now, but they're overbearing and overstepping."

Sonnenberg made a similar point.

"I would argue 30, 40 years ago, the feds were very understanding," he said, "and were very willing to work with farmers and ranchers."

A sign at the beginning of a road into BLM land that was temporarily closed to round up illegal cattle that were grazing south of Mesquite, Nevada, on April 11, 2014.
George Frey / Getty Images

A sign at the beginning of a road into BLM land that was temporarily closed to round up illegal cattle that were grazing south of Mesquite, Nevada, on April 11, 2014.

Some observers see this shift as a positive development. In years past, the BLM sometimes was criticized for being too cozy and lenient with industry, occasionally earning it the nickname the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. And many environmental groups see an increasing emphasis on conservation as a good thing.

Nie agreed that the BLM has changed over the years, but disagreed that it is unnecessarily antagonistic to those in the agriculture industry.

"One of the ironies of the whole story is that I can't really think of a time where the BLM and the Forest Service have worked more collaboratively than they're currently doing now," he said.

Still, good or bad, the shift has rankled Westerners. The Bundys. The Lymans. The Hammonds. The Sagebrush Rebels.

The list goes on and on, and it isn't finished yet.

"The ranchers that are in business right now, their parents were in ranching and they're saying, 'Why did I even choose this as a profession?'" Lyman said. "If it was just market conditions that we were talking about that would be one thing, but it's not just market conditions. They're being actively pushed out."

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