Oregon standoff leaders urge local ranchers to defy feds on grazing fees – OregonLive.com
CRANE – The occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge took their crusade to end federal land ownership to a new level Monday, imploring local ranchers to tear up their government grazing contracts.
Standing before a crowd of about 30 in the dining room of a high desert hot springs resort, the leaders of the armed standoff urged those gathered to “lay claim” to the area’s federal lands.
The federal government owns about three-quarters of Harney County, renting much of it out to ranchers who pay a fee to run cattle there.
“If you want to clear yourself from this unconstitutional mess and claim the rights that you already own and use them the way you should, then you need to take that contract and you need to tear it up and you need to tell them that you’re never signing another one again,” said Ryan Bundy, one of the leaders of the takeover with his younger brother, Ammon Bundy.
The Bundy brothers and their comrades share the belief that the federal government lacks authority to own large parcels of land in the West. Their fight against federal land managers took off during an armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch owned by their father, Cliven Bundy, and arrived in Oregon 17 days ago.
After staging a peaceful protest Jan. 2 against the federal prison sentences that two Harney County ranchers received for lighting fires that spread to federal land, the Bundys and a small group of followers seized the headquarters of the refuge. The bird sanctuary, 30 miles outside of Burns, is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In the days since, the protesters have vowed to stay as long as it takes to ensure the land is turned over to local control and have urged Harney County residents to join their movement. At community meetings last week, many residents said they supported the occupiers’ message, but wanted them to go home.
Now, the protesters are going a step further, asking local ranchers to sign their names to documents rejecting the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s authority.
“When you commit to stand, I promise you the angel of heaven will stand with you,” occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum told the crowd.
Finicum announced earlier in the day that the protesters had recruited two ranchers – one from Oregon and one from New Mexico — to stop paying grazing fees, but he and the other occupation leaders spent more than three hours in Crane trying to convince more people to join the cause.
The signing ceremony – now set for Saturday — is “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ammon Bundy said. The next time such an opportunity arises, he said: “It’ll be war.”
“The opportunity is now. The place is Harney County. And you are the people,” he said.
Most in the audience sat stoically, with some occasionally nodding along with the presenters’ speeches. Others questioned the protesters, some vehemently.
“I personally don’t think this can happen this fast,” said rancher Buck Taylor of Diamond. “If I just stood up and signed a piece of paper Saturday that would put my family, my ranch in jeopardy.”
“You’re asking us to give up everything for this rebel cause,” said another rancher, Scott Franklin, who lives north of Burns.
The occupiers tried to allay their concerns by offering quotes from the Founding Fathers and reading aloud from pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution. The passages, they argued, proved the federal government can’t lawfully control land in the West.
The federal government’s sole role, they said, is to protect U.S. citizens from the outside world, including national defense, international trade, border security and almost nothing else.
Finicum said the signed grazing documents will be sent to the U.S. solicitor general.
“It’s not about ranching,” Finicum said Monday morning during a news briefing at the refuge. “It’s about asking the federal government to return to the confines of the law and allow the states and the counties to be free to govern themselves.”
Grazing fees were at the center of Cliven Bundy’s confrontation with federal authorities in Nevada. A judge ordered him to pay $1 million in fees to the Bureau of Land Management, but he has refused.
In Oregon and other Western states, it’s common for ranchers to pay the government for the grazing rights. Their allotments often are several times larger than their private holdings, giving them the ability to raise far more cattle than they could without access to federal land.
The occupied wildlife refuge covers 187,757 acres.
Finicum, who has stopped paying fees on the federal grazing allotment attached to his Arizona ranch, said he doesn’t believe ranchers who reject the fees should have free access to the land. Instead, the occupiers support a “production tax” directing grazing fees into local government coffers, he said.
The occupiers have organized a “rapid response team” tasked with defending ranchers who agree to stop paying their grazing fees, he said.
“At any time that they need somebody, they can call,” Finicum said. “If the sheriff will not respond, we will respond.”
— Kelly House