BURNS, Ore. — B.J. Soper has seen the frustration building for years in this rural corner of Oregon.
The federal government owns more than half the land in the state, as it does across much of the West. It used to be routine for ranchers to get permits to graze cattle or cut timber or work mines — a way to make a living from the land.
Then came increasing environmental regulations, and the federal land became more for owls and sage grouse than for local people trying to feed their families, said Soper, 39, who lives 100 miles up the road in Bend.
“What people in Western states are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life,” said Soper, a father of four who was once a professional rodeo rider. “When frustration builds up, people lash out.”
Anger at the federal government boiled over this past weekend, when a small group of people took over a remote federal wildlife refuge east of here. Their specific aim was to support two local ranchers sentenced to prison over arson charges. But the larger issue is a decades-long struggle over federal land rights in the West that often flies under the radar in much of the country.
“These are tough issues to resolve, because they are about people’s values,” said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University in Idaho, about 220 miles east of Burns.
Freemuth said that in recent decades, the federal government has placed increasing emphasis on the environment, which has led to more restrictions on ranching, grazing, mining and other traditional uses of the land. That has led to frustration among many rural Westerners, who feel a sharp disconnect with a federal government run by people in urban centers.
“They have a concern that they are being left behind, that their values and their concerns are really irrelevant to the urban folks around the country,” Freemuth said.
The extent of federal land ownership in the West is often not well understood by people from other parts of the country, he said. According to a 2014 reportby the Congressional Research Service, the federal government owns 27.4 percent of all U.S. land.
But the vast majority of that territory is concentrated in a handful of Western states. According to the report, the federal government controls 84.9 percent of Nevada, 64.9 percent of Utah, 61.9 percent of Idaho, 61.2 percent of Alaska, 52.9 percent of Oregon and 48.1 percent of Wyoming.
Late Sunday, the FBI took charge of the law enforcement response to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, saying that it will work with local and state authorities to seek “a peaceful resolution to the situation.”
“Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved, we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response,” the FBI said in a statement.
The armed activists, led by rancher Ammon Bundy, announced plans to stay indefinitely. Bundy’s father, Cliven, is a Nevada rancher who has sparred with the government for years and who in 2014 had an armed standoff with federal agents trying to prevent him from illegally grazing his cattle on federal land. After the federal authorities backed down, experts said the showdown “invigorated” anti-government groups in the United States.
On Monday, Ammon Bundy said his group of occupiers had taken on a name: Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. He also said the group wanted to help people in the county “in claiming their rights, using their rights as a free people.” He did not offer any further specifics on how long they intended to stay.
Freemuth said that while most people in the rural West feel “tension” with the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), few agree with an armed takeover of federal property.
“Most of the folks there understand the tensions and the grievances, but Bundy is way out of the loop on that stuff,” he said. “They are kind of appalled at what he’s doing. Violence and seizing the land is not the answer.”
Len Vohs, who was mayor of Burns from 2008 to 2010, said he, like many locals, shares the frustration with the federal government that drove Bundy and others to occupy the wildlife refuge. But he said few support their tactics, and most wish they would just go home.
“It’s anarchy,” Vohs said. “What we have here is old-style thinking, that might is right.”
Local people held a peaceful march and rally Saturday to support two ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — who were convicted of arson on public land. The Hammonds had already served time for the arson conviction, but then a federal judge ruled that they had not served enough.
On Monday, they surrendered without incident to federal custody in California, according to Harney County Sheriff David Ward. Afterward, Ward used an afternoon news conference to address the occupiers directly.
“To the people at the wildlife refuge: You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation,” he said. “The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully.”
The armed occupiers at the wildlife refuge attended the rally for the Hammonds, and they said their situation illustrates the larger issue of excessive federal government control over citizens’ lives.
Even those disturbed by the way federal authorities dealt with the Hammonds criticized the refuge occupation.
“The federal government has done a gross injustice to the Hammonds, which has severely damaged the long-term trust and cooperation that ranchers and foresters and recreationists have had with BLM,” the Oregon Farm Bureau, a nonprofit representing the state’s farmers and ranchers, said in a statement. “However, the illegal activity of so-called militia groups only harms the Hammonds and the rest of the community because it diverts public attention and scrutiny away from the injustice that the federal government perpetrated on this Oregon family.”
Vohs also said the occupiers, few if any of whom are from Burns, do not speak for the town.
“The majority of us support the Hammonds, but we don’t need outsiders telling us what to do,” Vohs said.
Vohs said that during his mayoral term, he was proud of the consensus he built among local residents, commercial interests and government agencies to try to resurrect the community’s failing economy. Now, he said, he hears frustration that such cooperation has all but vanished.
Glen Williams, known as “The Boss” to many locals, sees government increasingly as standing in his way of putting more food in people’s mouths. He owns Central Pastime, the only bar in town, and, as he views it, federal mandates have chipped away at the ability of locals to do business, work the land and manufacture.
“The town sticks together,” he said. “We take care of each other. But there’s getting to be less and less of us to take care of.”
Williams has lived in Burns on and off since 1974 and remembers when six or seven bars served patrons. His bar weathered a mill shutdown, the demise of a motor home manufacturing plant and the struggles of ranchers trying to scratch out a living.
Williams blames the sagging economy, in part, on ever-increasing federal mandates and environmental regulations that have restricted timber harvests, limited grazing and toughened emissions standards. That made it hard for the mobile home manufacturing plant to compete.
“If everyone was happy with the government, you wouldn’t have seen the rally,” he said.
Soper also said he disagreed with an armed takeover of federal property, but he said the government had invited it with excessive regulations that are hurting people economically.
“The frustration of the people built up to cause this,” Soper said. “It’s really no different than the Occupy Movement or a sit-in at a college.”
He said rural Oregonians view the government’s policies as blocking working people from earning a living.
“True wealth comes from the land. If they can’t feed their cows, there’s not going to be beef in the supermarket,” he said. “People are no longer [able] to make a living.”
Federal agencies, he said, “are taking food out of people’s mouths.”
Berman and Sullivan reported from Washington.
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