So, the Bundys are at it again. Two years ago Cliven Bundy and his gang took up arms against the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada claiming the feds had no right to charge a private citizen grazing fees on public lands. “Public” apparently means “help yourself” in their dictionary. I don’t know if Cliven considers that stand-off a success, but he got a ton of publicity, and my understanding is that his cattle are still grazing – or trespassing, depending on your point of view – on federal land. The conflict lives on in court, where it has been for a couple of decades.

Ammon Bundy; photo credit: KOIN

Ammon Bundy; Photo credit: KOIN/LIN Television Corporation. 

And now Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Cliven’s sons, have rounded up their own posse and gone to southeast Oregon to support another ranching family, the Hammonds, who are facing jail time for arson on federal land. At this moment they are occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building and the Fish and Wildlife Service has closed its offices in the area. Schools are also closed for the week.

There is plenty to be concerned about. Again they are armed. Again they are full of tough talk about staying til justice is done. Again they are hearing the “word of God,” exhorting them to break the law on this piece of land that is not theirs. They are ready to die if it comes to that. These are elements of many of the worst conflicts in the world today, and these are the elements that make my mediator’s heart sink. 

But, wait, a ray of light! The local community, including the Hammonds, are rejecting the uninvited support. Their public statements include: “They don’t speak for us,” “We don't need outsiders telling us what to do," “We are a law-abiding community,” “Bundys are here for their own gain, at our expense.” Even Susan Hammond, wife of the soon-to-be imprisoned Mr.  Hammond, said "I don't really know the purpose of the guys who are out there.”  Most seem to want the uninvited supporters, now calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, to go back where they came from.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

As an environmental mediator I have dealt with dozens of nasty conflicts over the use and management of natural resources. (And, no, I do not want to go to Oregon.) What I have learned is that there is a powerful bond between people and their land. If it is your land, by birth, by deed, by heritage or culture, your stake is greater than any other interested party. If you are a tribe, for instance, or a traditional rural community, and your people have been in a certain place for centuries, you have a powerful card to play at the negotiating table. If those resources are the foundation for your livelihood, your identity, your beliefs and values, then you are not going anywhere. You are staying put, and you will be cautious – not necessarily hostile – but cautious about those who want to share in those resources, who want to join you in your homeland.

This is the source of the deep conflict in the southwest between land-based traditional communities and newly arrived environmentalists, who with the best intentions invite themselves in, full of ideas for a better way of doing things. Aside from whether the new ideas are good ones or not, the approach and the assumptions can be inappropriate at best, and insulting at worst. The environmentalists may be confused and hurt by the reception, and may choose to dig in and fight, or may leave for greener pastures where they will be appreciated. In New Mexico a conflict between environmentalists and a traditional sheep-grower’s cooperative was resolved through mediation, but the process was a difficult one for all involved. The environmentalists who opposed the coop’s grazing their sheep grazing in a wildlife refuge had to learn about the culture and history of the land and develop respect for the particular link between the community and the land. The sheep growers had to come to the table and negotiate, something they were in the beginning unwilling to do.

And so, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, do you see the parallel? Those local folks have power based on their sense of community and their attachment to that piece of land. The battle with the Fish and Wildlife Service is theirs to fight, with the tools they choose. You have arrived uninvited and are being politely asked to leave. I would suggest you do so ASAP.

And to the federal government, I say smart move. Shut down and wait it out. Let those with the real power, those on the land, handle this invasion. They are the best equipped and have the moral authority to defend themselves.