Malheur and beyond

It’s been a month-and-a-half since occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon ended. Most of the Malheur occupiers and many of those who planned and directed the earlier 2014 standoff with federal personnel at the Bundy Ranch near Mesquite, Nevada, are now in prison waiting trial.

What kind of activists were the occupiers?
Hal Herring, a Montana journalist, lived with the occupiers for a while and has now written a telling feature article, “The darkness at the heart of Malheur.” It is in the latest issue of the High Country News. Herring believed he might have something in common with them and hoped to use this to help him understand and write about the event.

He found that many of them seemed to be generally likable folks, but many were also basically “crackpots” when it come to political reasoning who believed in a host of extreme conspiracy theories such as the Hammonds had been taken back to prison because their land was underlain by uranium which had been bought by the Chinese government. The refuge rebels had no clue to the history of the refuge or about grazing on the public lands; oh, and they didn’t care to learn. They knew little about Ammon Bundy’s stated goal to turn the refuge land back to the ranchers it had supposedly been stolen from, and they really didn’t care about that much either. It their intense, but unfocused fight against the federal government that counted.
Ammon Bundy himself didn’t seem to know that much of the Refuge’s land had always been public land. Of the private land, there was one important seller who sold 65,000 acres willingly back in 1935. The Bundys didn’t know that today the Refuge is grazed by local ranchers who have permits to take “excess forage” not needed for the wildlife. I should add that conservation groups like the Western Watersheds Project argue that the Malheur is being overgrazed. As a result, the birds, wildlife, and visitors all suffer as a result of this gift to the local livestock industry.

Each occupier seemed to have a prime personal reason for being there. These were not based on high minded political principles, and these individual motivations hardly matched each other. The only common thing was hatred of the federal government. They all had their pocket constitutions which were frequently pulled out, but rarely discussed. They served as a trump card to enhance the occupiers’ arguments or to end disagreement.

Herring concluded, “I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught.”
Well, they failed to spark a rebellion. They’re now in jail and the Refuge has $6-million in damage according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The only winner seems to have been the marsh destroying carp. They root out the plants that sustain the marsh. The project to rid Malheur of the millions of introduced carp probably got a year’s setback.

Now, back in Utah
Back in Utah, the failure of this occupation did not deter the Republican portion of the state legislature from ramming through a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the U. S. government arguing that Utah must be given title to all the federal lands. They plan to make a number of legal and constitutional claims that the public lands belong in the State of Utah’s hands. Most experts say these claims are based on fringe ideas of constitutional law. They are very likely to fail.

Nevertheless, to show their commitment the Utah legislature passed a law to establish a “framework” for managing the U.S. public lands it might receive after a Supreme Court victory. Led by Kanab rancher-developer Mike Noel, it is a document specifying the lands will be managed for multiple uses. Oddly, it borrows much language from the hated federal Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Noel says the new Utah law is all about retaining the land, not selling it off. Of course, much of the criticism over transferring public lands to the states argues that they would quickly be sold off. The reason for the prediction is that the states would lose too much money for them to bear the load. Saying the states will retain the land, and financing the retention are two different things. Several years ago the Utah legislature ordered an academic study of the feasibility of financing management of federal lands it might receive. The lengthy study considered a number of scenarios, but just one of them found the state breaking even rather than a loss. This was the case if the price of oil rose to $100 a barrel, something it has rarely attained. Right now oil is from 20 to 40 dollars a barrel. So Utah could finance their takeover at breakeven only when unusually expensive crude oil prevails. In such a case oil and gas would subsidize grazing, recreation, and  timbering. Of course, folks might imagine what Utah forestry is like, it being the second driest state.

In other Utah related public land action,  Jason Chaffetz, a Utah member of Congress, has introduced a bill to transfer all law enforcement powers on U.S. public lands to local sheriffs, a key demand of the freeman or sovereign citizen movement that believes the county sheriff is the ultimate law officer in the United States. The Bundys were associated with this strange idea., and they were very disappointed when David Ward, the Harney County sheriff at Burns did not ascribe to this belief from 12th Century England.

State land management in practice
The belief of critics is also based on the way the original land grants from the federal government to the Western states are managed – strictly for logging, grazing and mining. There is almost no concern for water quality, sustainability, recreation, wildlife, beauty, public access or the environment. For example, in Wyoming you can’t even camp on state lands. Wyoming state land management consists of just three range managers for 3.5 million acres. In terms of acres used, livestock grazing is the main use of the state lands. Nonetheless, none of the states make much money on state land grazing even though they charge the ranchers higher grazing fees than the federal government does. In Wyoming revenues from grazing the state lands are so small proportionately that they are not even broken out separately in the annual report of revenues. The states are directed by their constitutions to use these land grants (often called the state “school” or state “trust” lands) to produce maximum revenue. Nonetheless in actuality, grazing seems to be more of a state government gift to this local culturally dominant group than it is to fill the state’s coffers. This is not true of logging and mining on state lands. This is where the revenue comes from, especially the real money maker, oil and natural gas. In Wyoming about 90% of the state lands revenue comes from mineral revenues.

What about Idaho and other states?
Leaving the odd case of Utah behind, since Malheur the effort to take the public lands has not made progress in the state legislatures. At the time of the refuge occupation there were state legislators who visited Oregon to see and support occupation. From Idaho they were Rep. Judy Boyle (R-Midvale), Sage Dixon (R-Ponderay) and Heather Scott (R-Blanchard — Bonner and Boundary County). While at Burns, Oregon, one county official from Burns gave Heather Scott the dressing down she deserved. In the Idaho Legislature, Boyle came back to lead an attack on our public lands, but she was defeated in committee. She wanted to stop federal acquisition of any more public lands in the state, but many Idahoans want to donate or sell their private land to make our public lands more complete (especially our national forests). Her bill was considered by legislators as an attack on the private property right to sell or give your land.

In other states, the post-occupation response was similar to Idaho’s. Anti-public land bills did not pass in any state legislature except Utah’s. In Colorado and New Mexico bills to support federal public lands came close to passing.

Despite this, all is not safe at the federal level. Texan Ted Cruz makes it clear he wants to rid us of our public lands and make the whole country like Texas. Texas is one of the most boring states I ever visited. It might be big, but since it is private you can’t see it. You’d never know. Some members of Congress are on the same page as Cruz. This includes Utah’s five members and our own Raul Labrador in the first congressional district. He seems not to have had the chance to learn about the long tradition of public lands in the West back in Puerto Rico where he came from.

Of all those who occupied the Malheur Refuge, only one came from Oregon. In Idaho most of those who want to get rid of our public lands seem to be people who grew up in a non-Western tradition like Representative Raul Labrador. Nevada state legislator Michelle Fiore was major supporter of the Refuge’s occupation. This zaftig blonde is best known for her many poses with guns. She even has a calendar of this, but she came to Nevada from Brooklyn, New York.

Guns are an American thing, not something unique to the West. These folks were not educated in the outdoor traditions of the West that require access to big country. They have unrelated personal agendas in this. So, it’s too bad we have to battle against some of are own to keep Western land intact.




  1. Larry Keeney Avatar
    Larry Keeney

    There is a lot to be said of the importance of a western lifestyle that prequalifies a person to know what is best for the west. Just that statement can press someone’s hot button. The statement is both true and false. USFWS-LE used to only look to state game department rosters for qualified candidates. Then they opened up and accepted other agency transfers. Some good ‘ol boys were very opposed and in some cases were right, in which those that didn’t fit soon moved on to other agencies. That of course is a very narrow view and overall is flawed thinking. That said though sometimes was true. I can find much agreement with a western rancher that swells up his chest when looking out over the terrain about sunset and sees the rabbit brush blowing in the wind and a blacktailed jack break out from nowhere at 0-45 mph. You just can’t tell that story to a Brooklyn deli operator and share the same feeling between the two of you. All that changes though when the wind swept rabbit brush view is not seen because of the greed for money that comes from bulldozing the rabbit brush into oblivion. To hell with the vistas. Give me someone from Brooklyn that is truly awe struck at the western vista, the cold desert and the rimrock hiding a mule deer king. They know immediately no amount of money can compensate for the loss of such precious gems. The western dimwit that has grown up in the west and now wants to destroy this priceless heritage belongs to a special class of lowlife, somewhere below Adolf and Genghis Khan.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      That was beautifully written.

      This is a fascinating post, Ralph.

  2. skyrim Avatar

    Well stated Mr. Keeney.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Larry Keeney,

    I agree with a lot of what you say about those who grew up in the West. It hardly prequalifies them to know what is best for the West. I have friends who did not grow up here and are shocked and angry about those “natives” who don’t give a damn about the big Western sky. However, I think there are many who have come in from elsewhere who are much more pleased by the whiteness of most folk’s skin than the color of the sunset, at least in Idaho and northwestern Montana. This explains in a big way why Idaho went from a moderate state in the 1970s-90s to a right wing bastion.
    Those western dimwits who grew up in the West that you write about are usually inhabitants of the small towns who never got out of their state and don’t know what they have.
    I’d be interested in folk’s impressions of what type of people in the West don’t care to keep the public lands. I’ll start with a disproportionate number of ranchers who have grazing allotments.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a friend about rural vs urban culture…..

      1. Larry Keeney Avatar
        Larry Keeney

        Louise Kane,
        The high desert culture is a very important element to those who evolve knowing what sagebrush smells like. I have been in western Washington for the last 40 years but still have an undeniable love affair with southern Idaho. The last 40 years have been good to me but my grandkids can tell you that I get more animated telling stories from my first 30 years. I think the difference in the love affair of the high desert between those that want preservation and those that graze the crap out of it is; Ranchers have intimate control and have an underlying desire to think of it as personal ownership; whereas others of us accept the collective ownership through citizenship. Ranchers have money in the picture that lubricates their thinking also. The love of money plus the love of vast distant horizons make a powerful force to reckon with. While their arguments are camouflaged saying they want better management that can only come from state control, they are really after more personal control which their bankroll already has them in the starting gate position to be granted that if transfer should occur. I guess my point is that both the rancher and I get that same swelling of the chest with regard to the aspect of the west but we have to fight the monetary aspect which already gives the ranchers/oil/mining the edge. That’s a tough row to hoe. By the way similar people feelings are present for all of our special places in this country such as the Mississippi Delta, coastal plains, Everglades, hardwood forests, etc. People ‘evolving’ in those places fight for it just as the fight over the west is occurring.

  4. Theo Chu Avatar
    Theo Chu

    You forgot to mention that Hillary made millions from that sale of uranium to the Chinese.

  5. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    It is not lost on me the irony of the name of the chosen target by this rabble of Fed Haters.

    Malheur translated loosely means ” Bad Fortune”.

    The Bundy Brigade or the other Landgrabbers need to pick their strategic battlegrounds with somewhat more astuteness, if they have any…

  6. Mike Bickley Avatar
    Mike Bickley

    The Malheur rebels are more than just fed haters they seem to detest authority of any kind. My guess is that if their dream came true and the States obtained all the public lands within their borders the rebels would only have another entity to hate and distrust.

  7. don smith Avatar
    don smith

    I was on the southern Oregon coast yesterday and read a short piece in the Brookings paper about an upcoming talk in town this week. A member of the Utah legislature was coming to town to discuss the efforts in Utah to turn nationally owned lands over to the state, and to encourage the same in Oregon. As stated in the news story, such a public lands turnover to the state would create jobs and “give these lands back to the public.”

    Among other things, turning national lands over to the state implies that those lands are currently not in the hands of the public; they are locked up due to over zealous regulations. For them, these lands are not truly public unless they are made wide open to extraction (much more so than they are presently) to mining, logging, grazing, etc.

    Interesting that when conservationists were at Malheur to protest during a “rebel” news conference, they had a sign that said ‘Keep Public Lands Public’. I saw a photo of this conference with Ammon Bundy standing next to that same sign. He was quoted in the news story saying they agreed with keeping public lands public. This begs the question: what does public mean? This “debate” lies at the heart of the conflict.

    Having lived in four Western States, I can attest to the notion that it is often the local ‘natives’ who are most abusive of public lands. But lets keep in mind that the West is not really so rural as most assume. The West is really more urban than rural. But holding the impression that it is rural by confusing open space to rural dominance prevails. Why? Because it conforms to myths of the West, myths tied to independence, individuality, all traced back to colonization of Indian lands out West by settlers. This myth prevails to this day because this myth compensates for what has taken place in the country not only out West but out East as well: the urbanization of our country. Thus the compensatory need to hold onto this myth.

    A lot more could be said about all of this. In any case, what I consider the greatest challenge facing the conservation movement in this country is the crucial need to raise high the banner of public lands, and by this I mean truly public lands, and why keeping them is so important, and how turning national public lands over to the states to “manage” will change the lives of all who live out West in ways we can only image, by closing access to these lands.

    Ironic that for the “rebels”, it is this very access they claim is being denied. Of course, the very opposite is true.

    1. Salle Avatar

      I saw a similar write up in the Island Park News a week or two ago. Somebody with some kind of officialness is gonna come on up here and tell the folks why they are gonna “get their land back”.


      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        They came to Boise about 1 1/2 – 2 months ago. They found that supporters of the public lands had a well organized turnout, a bit of a demonstration, and plenty of questions from the audience to the talk.

    2. Larry Keeney Avatar
      Larry Keeney

      Don Smith
      +++ In my family I am the outlaw, some of my closest relatives sport the bumper sticker “wilderness-land of no use”. Ashamed to say few of my cousins have a college degree. They are the “local natives” you speak of. Most often throughout history it is societies that yearn for the old days when they realize they have lost something dear to them and took it for granted when they had it.

  8. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Thought you might all enjoy reading an article about Cape Cod coyotes and Dr. Jon Way, from one of our regional magazines:

    Cape Cod is Coyote Country – Ahoooooo!!!

  9. Patrick Avatar

    Good comments. I would add that there is an element of our society that still yearns for the days of the Homestead Act, where free land was given to settlers with the provision that you “improve” it. This notion reinforced the idea that the only good land is occupied land, and the only value it has is in its exploitation and development. That and the fact that it is difficult to make a living in the west farming and ranching due to the arid climate without significant diversion, development, and use of water resources. Hence,the push to open lands by those who espouse disenfranchisement, but are really just greedy.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      + 1 Patrick

  10. monty Avatar

    I remember driving from Houston to El Paso, Texas, about 900 hundred miles,a distance with no free public camping. All fenced in! The wide open spaces…horse manure. The only wide open spaces in Texas is Big Bend National Park!

    Public lands represent “physical freedom” and open space.For those who hate public lands, their heart and souls are devoid of poetry!!!!!

  11. Tim Bondy Avatar
    Tim Bondy

    I’ve been to two political forums in Idaho recently. Public lands has become an issue with the state legislative candidates in my district … District 23. All five candidates expressed an interest in the state taking over 32 million acres those public lands. In my opinion, this should not and hopefully never will happen. Read my article (or don’t) found at

    I’m willing to help make sure Idaho doesn’t become someone’s own Private Idaho.

  12. Nancy Avatar

    ++++++ Tim!

    Would of left a comment on your site but I don’t subscribe to any of the “select profile” choices necessary to post a comment.

  13. Tim Bondy Avatar
    Tim Bondy

    Sorry Nancy. It’s nothing personal 😉

  14. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Talk about “rigged”.

    Bundys Found Not Guilty In Refuge Occupation Trial

  15. Yvette Avatar

    Oh hell. Replace the assault weapons, fatigues and big hats with drums, traditional songs and prayers and ba-da-bing! You can sure bet there will be private security guards siccing attack dogs on horses, children and women. You can sure bet they will bring out the militarized cops in their federally funded gang task force military tanks. You can sure bet the powers that be will bring the national guard and all of them will shoot rubber bullets, use pepper spray and sound cannons. You can count on the law enforcement to arrest and strip search you. It won’t matter if you are Native or a Hollywood actress. You will be arrested and strip searched. Journalists? Charge them! You will be arrested and charged just being there to support the Indigenous fighting against more depredation of their treaty land. Was it not enough for the Bureau of Reclamation and the USACOE to take and flood millions of acres of bottomland forest that the affected tribes in the Missouri River watershed depended upon for sustenance with their Pick-Sloan dam building plan?

    Yeah, just be a right wing group of White militia people with an assault weapons used to take over a wildlife refuge. Fill those wetlands! Destroy artifacts! Use federal property! No worries. Just fly that flag and chomp on a some straw. Heck, law enforcement won’t even cut the utilities. But God forbid you’re a tribe on the remnant of the lands you have left and want to protect your source water.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Good post, Yvette…more truth in this than most want to admit (and yes, our tribal land was flooded too)

    2. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue



Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan