Months before Malheur occupation, another Oregon land dispute galvanized militants – OregonLive.com
What’s unfolding in Harney County isn’t Oregon’s first go-round with camouflaged, heavily armed militants challenging the federal government.
Another event just nine months ago drew far less attention. But those who watched it closely say it emboldened and further galvanized the militant movement a year after the 2014 Cliven Bundy ranch standoff in Nevada.
Oregon’s first serious encounter happened last April. It played out in rural Josephine County in southwestern Oregon, in a mountainous stretch of timber country along the Rogue River.
Many of the same players have shown up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Two are among the compound’s occupiers.
The Sugar Pine Mine dispute started when two gold miners, Rick Barclay and George Backes, received a non-compliance letter from the Bureau of Land Management that disputed their mining rights.
A federal employee looking for abandoned mines found a cabin and equipment on the site near Galice, northwest of Grants Pass, that a spokesman said didn’t fit under the allowed uses. Before extracting gold, they’d need the right approvals.
The miners believed they already had what they needed – a mining claim Barclay said predated even the bureau’s formation.
Though the federal notice allowed for an administrative appeal, Barclay told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an interview he feared the agency would ignore it and torch his cabin and destroy his mining equipment. He said he wanted due process.
The federal agency said it had no plan to move on the site, describing the notice as routine.
“If they’d failed to respond to the first letter, the process for us would’ve been another letter – not going into the mine site,” said Jim Whittington, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman. “If they would’ve completely ignored us, it still would’ve taken years for any action on that.”
Still, the image of an out-of-control agency hell bent on displacing two miners provided a rallying cry for militants, some of whom had challenged the bureau when it tried to collect $1 million in grazing fees owed by the Bundy family in 2014. The move precipitated what militants call the “Battle of Bunkerville,” which ended after federal officials backed off.
In the Oregon mine dispute, Barclay turned to the Oath Keepers of Josephine County, which identifies itself as a nonpartisan group of veterans and current and former police officers sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Armed supporters kept watch for six weeks at the mining claim in what they called Operation Gold Rush. They used many of the same tactics employed in the ongoing conflict at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They recorded YouTube videos and urged their Facebook followers to spread them. They requested Paypal donations to reimburse protestors’ travel expenses. Weapons were evident but not drawn.
“SHARE GET IT VIRAL! GREEN LIGHT OREGON STAND OFF! SHARE GET IT OUT CALL TO ACTION: GET TO OREGON NOW!” shouted the Facebook page of one supporter, Blaine Cooper, an Arizona man who’s now among those occupying the wildlife refuge headquarters in Harney County.
To hear Barclay and others tell it, the Sugar Pine event was an orderly affair. Those who kept watch had to be vetted by Oath Keepers. And there was never a showdown with law enforcement.
“It wasn’t like the initial Bundy event,” Barclay said, referring to the 2014 standoff.
Conflicts still arose. The Bureau of Land Management closed its offices in Grants Pass and Medford for a day because of security concerns over protests planned outside. Barclay had to urge supporters not to harass Bureau employees after the agency reported receiving threatening phone calls. He blames online trash-talkers for the intimidation.
“The response I got with the Oath Keepers was fine,” Barclay said. “The problem is the ‘keyboard commandos.'”
As with the ongoing Harney County action, enforcement took a non-confrontational approach. Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel told his deputies to stay away.
Although the Sugar Pine dispute bears a resemblance to the Malheur occupation, Daniel noted a key difference: Armed militants gathered in an isolated stretch of forest and slept in tents. Photos of the site make it look like a campout – just with a lot of guns.
The militants weren’t occupying a building or disrupting daily life of the community nearby as has happened in Harney County.
“What you had in Sugar Pine was a peaceful, fairly well-organized event,” Daniel said. “What you have over there is truly an armed occupation where laws are being broken.”
Joseph Rice, county coordinator of the Oath Keepers of Josephine County, was on site for most of the six-week Sugar Pine action. He said it was instrumental in fostering connections to other like-minded people that believe the Bureau of Land Management needs more accountability.
During his time in the woods, he got to know others who would end up forming the Pacific Patriots Network, a consortium of groups from Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Though Rice said the network disapproves of the occupation at the bird sanctuary, its heavily armed members turned up there to provide security a week into the standoff. Rice has since returned home.
“The biggest thing that came out of Sugar Pine is the ability to talk and coordinate with each other,” Rice said. “At Sugar Pine, I met all these organizations that I didn’t know or have any association with at all. That was unique and different.”
The Sugar Pine event ended after the Bureau of Land Management granted the miners’ administrative appeal – an option afforded to them from the outset. It was enough for militants to claim victory. The appeals process is still ongoing.
While Josephine Sheriff Daniel said the outcome may’ve been accelerated because of the protest, he sees a more consequential takeaway from it: A growing movement gathered more momentum. He said that momentum has continued through the current standoff in Harney County.
“It starts with the Bundy ranch situation, where there was to a certain extent victory,” Daniel said. “Then you come up here to Josephine – the BLM had to, in essence, stand down. You look at what’s going on over there now, and it’s a much more emboldened group.”
— Rob Davis