Northern Wilds Magazine
Shawn Perich
Points North

Cowboy militia seems out of place in the New West

Social media can be a fun source of information. Via Facebook postings, I’ve been following the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where an armed group of self-styled militia men have taken over and occupied the headquarters office. Their cowboy cause, as it can best be understood, is to take over the federal lands across the West and turn them over to local control.

Just what that means is a little fuzzy, because land management isn’t cheap. States and counties simply couldn’t afford to take over millions of acres of federal land. They would be forced to sell them to private interests. The public lands now owned by all Americans would disappear. It must be pointed out that those federal lands currently provide not only economic activities such as grazing, logging and energy extraction, but are also the lands the public uses for hunting, fishing and all manner of outdoor recreation.

The issue of turning over federal lands to local entities isn’t new and has bubbled on the political pot in the West since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s. More recently, the issue has reached a political boiling point in some western states, most notably Utah, which is entering a lawsuit to take over federal lands. But taking the issue to court is a whole lot different than what has happened at Malheur NWR. The former respects due process, while the latter is insurrection.

But it is an insurrection with a cartoon-like quality. It wasn’t long before the cowboy militia issued a call for snacks. The animal rights group PETA showed up to give them tofu jerky (make tofu not beef), which one cowboy pronounced to be pretty tasty. So much for standing up for your cowboy ideals and way of life.

While the cowboys are armed, they say they only have the weapons to protect themselves. Apparently, they are worried about marauding jackrabbits. After all, this is 2016, not 1880. Boys, you’ve gone up against the United States of America, which has plenty of experience dealing with miscreants holed up in remote places. All it takes is one drone strike and you’ll be heading for the Last Roundup.

That said, it seems unlikely the government will resolve this situation with violence. But the idea that these cowboys think they can take up arms against the U.S. government, even symbolically, suggests they are living in the past. Then again, one could say the same about the professed roots of their insurrection. If they are trying to preserve a rural way of life, they just may be going about it the wrong way.

By taking over the wildlife refuge headquarters, the Oregon protesters have achieved media-friendly Old West symbolism, but in reality they are living in the New West. Drawn by the landscape and recreational opportunities, people from elsewhere are moving to the rapidly growing urban centers of the New West to pursue careers and lives based on new technologies rather than the traditional rural ways.  Their use of public lands is largely for recreation ranging from hunting to mountain biking and fuels a healthy and growing outdoor recreation industry, much of which is based in the western states. The inhabitants of the New West are not necessarily adverse to ranching and western traditions, but they view public lands as much more than pastures for grazing herds.

Ranchers may be threatened less by an overbearing government than they are by people like me, who pass by beef at the meat counter because it’s become a tasteless, chemical-laden product. “There is no such thing as Montana beef anymore,” a Montanan told me last summer. “All of our cattle get trucked to a feedlot in Nebraska or somewhere to be fattened on corn and pumped full of antibiotics. Why can’t we figure out a way to raise good, Montana beef?” To answer his question, perhaps by doing so, some ranchers could find a new way to preserve a way of life.

As for government, the biggest threat facing ranchers, indeed everyone who uses public lands, is a stingy Congress that has scaled back budgets and staffing for the nation’s land management agencies while continuing to enact laws that increase their workloads. Congress has also failed to address the skyrocketing costs of wildland fire-fighting, instead placing the burden on the limited staff and budgets of management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. The overall result is agencies full of capable land managers who are desk-bound and slaves to paperwork rather than accomplishing productive public lands management.

Ironically, the land management agencies the cowboy militia claims to mistrust may offer the best hope for their survival in the New West. Scientists, land managers, hunters and conservationists agree that ranching is a wise and traditional use of the western landscape, as well as key to the survival of western flora and fauna. Last summer, a collaboration of federal agencies, state governments, ranchers and conservationists launched the Sage Grouse Initiative to prevent an endangered species listing for the iconic bird.  Sage grouse need sage brush habitat to survive and that habitat is often a component of healthy, working ranches. Similar collaborative efforts are being used to protect watersheds, restore fisheries and achieve other conservation goals on working landscapes. Here in the lake states, the U.S. Forest Service’s Good Neighbor Initiative is allowing state and county foresters to help the short-staffed federal agency put up timber sales.

Last weekend, some western Facebook friends, hunters, conservationists and the like, announced they were fed up with the shenanigans of the of the cowboy militia and were heading to Malheur NWR to peacefully demonstrate their support for public lands. They hoped to be several thousand strong by the time they arrived there. At this writing, I haven’t heard if they were successful, but I wish them the best.

At the very least, it is past time for the cowboys to end their Wild West show. While law enforcement has wisely chosen a nonconfrontational approach to addressing the potentially violent situation, these men should be prosecuted to the fullest extent for their armed takeover of public buildings and property. The Malheur NWR belongs to all of us. We the people deserve nothing less.

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