In early January 2016, over 100 armed militia took control of a closed wildlife park headquarters at the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. What would provoke these militiamen to take such a drastic step as to occupy a federal nature reserve? Why would they risk a confrontation, one that might even turn violent, with government agents?
The militia claim they are occupying the land in protest against the arbitrary and unconstitutional exercise of government power against ranchers whose land abuts the refuge.
The area in question was settled by farmers in the 1870s and once ran over 300,000 head of cattle. Over the years, ranchers greatly improved the land, particularly through the creation of a complex irrigation system to support their herds.
With the rapid growth of the Green movement since the 1960s, ranchers and landowners all across the nation began to feel the painful effects of environmentalist laws. Ranchers near Malheur are no exception.
Laws such as the Endangered Species Act became tools bureaucrats used to require farmers to deal with onerous and costly regulations governing how they use their land.
Take for instance the egg of a bald or golden eagle. Destroying one could have a landowner facing two years in jail and fines of $250,000. Simply disturbing one of these beauties or holding a feather will land you in prison with a hefty fine to pay.
Now, before I get a barrage of angry comments, I’m not suggesting that because government bureaucrats can be bullies it is just fine to have open season on eagles. I’m merely trying to point out how bureaucrats wield enormous and arbitrary power. While others face stiff penalties, advocates of so-called green energy get free blessings from government rules though every year American wind turbines slash and kill almost 600,000 birds, (including hundreds of eagles) and almost 900,000 bats.
The power to control private land access and use is the power to destroy. By the 1970s, environmentalist policies provoked the Sagebrush Rebellion, a rural revolt against the heavy hand of new federal regulations.
As federal land expanded, it squeezed ranchers who refused to sell. The FWS and other bureaucracies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) applied strategic pressure by constantly changing the rules about livestock grazing, raising grazing fees, and revoking grazing permits. Many farmers gave up and sold out. Land gobbled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, presently covering over 187,000 acres.
By the 1990s, the family of Dwight Hammond, one of a handful of ranchers who still owned private property contiguous to the refuge, came into direct conflict with the bureaucrats. Mr Hammond says he purchased his ranch and grazing rights in 1964, prior to the establishment of the BLM. So when in 1994 he discovered the BLM and FWS building a fence to block his grazing access, he objected. He and his son blocked the fence and were arrested. Thus began a series of intensifying recriminations culminating in the Hammonds’ being tried and convicted in 2012 under the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.”
After a few months’ jail time they still did not sell their ranch. Bureaucrats in the BLM and the U.S. government did not leave them be, and in October 2015 they set about trying to get a new, heavier sentence.
This seems to have been the final straw. Private citizens like the Hammonds can’t continue living under this kind of stress for decades. It was this recognition that led the militia to occupy the Malheur refuge in protest. It represents a grassroots revulsion amongst country folk against decades of heavier and heavier Green chains.
Radical environmentalism, now comfortably enthroned in various unelected and unaccountable bureaucracies, not only threatens ranchers but also assaults the land rights of all citizens. American property rights are not incidental to why the nation became so wealthy in such a short time. The wealth of the nation is under attack with every new Green regulation limiting the ability of Americans to access and control their own property.
The second president of the United States, John Adams, articulated the founding vision: “The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.”
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