They fought the law and the law won

By George Ochenski

For what it’s worth, the Bundy-led takeover of the federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon is about over. Why these misled individuals ever thought they could simply pull out military-style weapons, intimidate local citizens, commandeer a federal facility and threaten federal and state law enforcement officers with deadly force is beyond imagination. That the incident ended with only one “suicide by cop” is actually miraculous.

Those who have been following this debacle will recall that Ammon Bundy, son of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, told his small band of followers that “the Lord” had directed him to go to Burns, Oregon, to intervene in the case of two ranchers who were sentenced to federal prison for setting fires on public lands. In at least one case, a witness at their trial, who happened to be a relative, testified that they were intentionally trying to destroy evidence of deer poaching. That these same ranchers had a long history of violating a variety of laws and regulations, as well as endangering a fire-fighting crew with their illegal arson, was apparently something the Lord forgot to tell Ammon Bundy.

One has to wonder, now that Bundy and his followers are headed to occupy a different kind of federal facility, namely a penitentiary, if their education ever contained a basic lesson taught to most students. Namely, “the tragedy of the commons,” a concept put forth in an 1833 essay by William Foster Lloyd to describe what happens when lands held in common by the public are abused by those seeking to exploit the public’s lands and resources for their personal enrichment.

Ironically, although Lloyd employed a hypothetical example of unregulated grazing on British commons, the Bundy bunch was intent on turning the hypothesis into reality when they destroyed fences on the wildlife refuge intended to keep cattle out of the refuge. Among the many good reasons for the cattle exclusion is the fact that the refuge is also home to Indian artifacts dating back thousands of years and representing the long history of the Paiute tribe’s habitation of the area.

The Bundy abuse of the commons didn’t stop there, however. Using federal heavy equipment, they also decided to bulldoze in a new road in an area that had been intentionally left roadless because numerous Indian artifacts were located beneath the surface. As one of the wildlife refuge employees told reporters, if they had wanted a road there, they surely would have built it in the 108 years the refuge has existed.

This outrageous and ignorant behavior should come as no surprise to those who followed the equally militant tactics of Cliven Bundy in the Nevada desert in 2014. A serial lawbreaker, for 20 years Bundy has refused to pay the federal government the same incredibly low grazing fees charged all other ranchers who run cattle on federal lands. After running up more than a million dollars in unpaid fees and fines, the Bureau of Land Management closed hundreds of thousands of acres and began a roundup of Bundy’s free-ranging cattle, which were to be removed and sold to recoup at least part of the debt Bundy owed the government for his illegal trespass and abuse of the lands that are owned by each and every American.

After gun-toting militants showed up at the Bundy ranch, erected roadblocks and shut down public roads, the federal agents decided the potential for violence and bloodshed was too high to risk an armed confrontation. Many still feel this was a mistake and set the precedent that drove Cliven Bundy’s sons to follow in their father’s misdirected footsteps in Oregon — a reality Cliven must live with daily as his sons head for prison.

In a nation of laws, there is simply no room for Bundy-style anarchy where those with guns take what they want by force of arms. It won’t work in the cities, nor will it work in rural areas and especially not when it comes to abuse of public lands and waters.

Quite contrary to their intentions, the Bundys have not done any favors for public lands ranchers. Millions of Americans now know it costs less to graze two dozen cows for a month on federal land than to visit a national park or stay a single night in a federal campground. In short, Bundy’s antics completely backfired, bringing increased scrutiny upon the ranching community and fostering less tolerance for those who would abuse America’s incredible public lands heritage.

George Ochenski writes political commentaries for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana. He resides in Helena, Montana.