Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park, Nevada — about the same level of isolation as the current protest occurring in Burns, OR.
Posts were coming in last night that a group of militia movement protestors, led by Ammon Bundy, had broken into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Burns, OR, ostensibly to make a statement about their assumed rights as ranchers and their right to graze cattle wherever they want in the West. The details are laborious, as well as their argument — mostly because it’s so convoluted and layered with half-truths and lies. This is, at some level, a continued manifestation of the Sagebrush Rebellion — a movement that was started back in the 1970s designed to return jurisdiction over federal lands in the western United States to the states in the region.
The short history is as follows: The United States, since its inception, has had various manifestations of programs either involving encouraging settlement of its domain, or reserving parts of it for various reasons. It’s the advantage of white folks coming into a new place, and embracing enough profound In Group/Out Group dynamics to exterminate off a huge hunk of the locals (known as Indians or Native Americans) or place them on remote ‘reservations’. Most Americans are aware of places like National Parks as being carved out of that federal reserve. Less know that over 10% of the public estate was given to a handful of men for construction of the railroads, which turned into a series of the largest land swindles in the history of the nation. But I digress…
The land available to be settled has always been called ‘the frontier’ in some form or another. And the frontier was essentially closed with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, that placed all unsettled lands into various grazing districts. At that time, the Bureau of Land Management was established (and funded) by the federal government to manage these lands, and coordinate use. What’s fascinating is that only two years earlier, President Herbert Hoover had offered the remaining unreserved federal lands to the states. And the states had turned him down, largely because most of the land was so damaged by overgrazing they wanted no part of the financial responsibility of fixing the mess that was out there on the range.
The lands in current contention, usually in the high desert of Nevada and eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, are remote. To utilize them, they were subject to considerable consolidation, both formal and informal, with old-fashioned land barons piecing together multi-hundred-thousand acre spreads patrolled by ranchers in airplanes.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the condition of the landscape, as well as the scale. To someone from the outside, these landscapes appear wild and desolate. But the ecological reality is that too many of them are often heavily impacted by sheep and cattle — those ubiquitous, non-native species. And the ranchers out there have bent much of the landscape to their will. Sometimes deliberately, by rooting up the sagebrush by a practice called ‘chaining’, where a chain is drug between two bulldozers to annihilate vegetation so that some non-native grass species can be planted; and sometimes accidentally, through the spread of species like cheatgrass across the bunchgrass ecosystems of the high mountain West.
If you think lots of cattle and beef are produced there, you’d be wrong as well. It’s a marginal fraction (I remember something less than 5% of all cattle production comes from the Intermountain West, and it’s probably less.) But the cowboy ethos in the U.S. looms large culturally, and even though no one in their right mind wants to actually work as a cowboy, as a nation, we are a sucker for iconic chiseled dudes in Stetson hats. Even if most ranch workers are migrant labor from Mexico and points south. When the ranch owners start talking, dressed in that Western drag, we perk up our ears, whether we should or not.
There’s more story behind the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters (which incidentally, though it is a wildlife refuge, still has cows grazing on it.) But here’s a description of the current situation: Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, is leading a protest, supposedly with armed men inside the building, involving occupying this piece of property in protest of a re-sentencing of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who burned 139 acres of rangeland, supposedly for rangeland management, but more likely to cover up a poaching violation. If the situation is anything like the last Bundy dust-up, it’s going to have lots of confused, isolated dogma, as well as more than a few non-native psychopaths laboring under impulsively driven, black-and-white thinking. In the vernacular, we might say they were “itchin’ fer a fight!” And they’re famous for having lots of automatic weapons.
The battle cry across lots of my enviro friends’ pages has been “lock ’em up!” and “storm the compound!” Obviously, this is very triggering for them, and many progressives. Here are a group of white males, who committed a crime — arson — who are now occupying a federal building and demand special privilege. What’s not to activate in those lower v-Memes? Those obsessed with power and control have long terrorized the environmental movement. Now it’s time for them to get their turn under the government boot.
Yet, if we want a better, or rather, a more evolved world, thinking along these lines on such a short timeline is likely a very poor solution. There are no hostages taken in the situation, and no one’s life is at risk. The locals in Burns, OR, where the Malheur NWR headquarters building is located, are pretty unhappy with the state of affairs. Everyone just got off Christmas holiday, after all.
And we can also see the effects of our hyper-connected, empathetic modern society, relaying information from one of the more remote corners of our world, into everyone’s living room. In many ways, this is no different than the situation with Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the 276 school girls in Nigeria to be distributed as wives and slaves to its fighters. 100 years ago, it would have been impossible for us to even know about such an event, and if we did know, there likely would have been an anthropologist there to tell us that such events were modestly common, and culturally appropriate. If we look at this event from a social/relational developmental framework, well, not much has changed regarding the Magical/Authoritarian v-Memes of the respective players. There is lots of higher-level Legalistic v-Meme borrowing, which is a fancy way of saying these guys are spouting the Constitution and using it for the justification of their actions. It’s also a sign of ignorance, a lack of personal evolution, and more than a little potential empathy disordered behavior.
Many of the rank-and-file involved with the protest look like Range War precedents from days past — namely lots of Authoritarians, with vested economic interests, and more than a little High Conflict personality in their blood. Yet it’s important to remember that the world, even in isolated Burns, Oregon, has moved past them. “It’s sort of frightening when there are people making threats and people toting guns,” Burns resident Kainan Jordan told KTVZ. “We’re not used to this kind of thing here.”
The solution is to not let the protestor cowboys bring the power of cultural imagery into play. Nothing is proved if someone goes home dead, other than the fact that the government really was only interested in power and control, or the wanna-be martyrs really turned out to be martyrs.
Maybe it’s really this: an opportunity for the Progressive Left and the environmental movement to confront their own past trauma, and grow and heal through it. And practice the long view that the folks in the movement purport to have across-the-board. We can turn off the power, and let the inevitable happen as more and more get cold and surrender. If we’re really evolved, we won’t even try to starve them out. That will take longer, but would be even more of a profound statement. We’ll accept this as the isolated incident that it is, and realize there is no way, in a country of 300 million, with behavior and structure across the Spiral, that things can be neat and clean. The statistics won’t permit it. Does anyone out there remember Wayne Hage and his 1991 range war? That guy even went so far as to marry Helen Chenoweth, famous Idaho congresswoman and radical right pioneer.
No one said it’s easy — and maybe this is one of the hardest moments. But counting on the Ammon Bundys of the other side to lead the way toward higher social evolution is not the way to bet. Let’s let them represent the barbaric edge of anachronism that they’re playing. And take our opportunity to give real credence to the anti-war slogan from the Vietnam era: “What if they had a war and nobody came?”