The 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon provided the American public with a ringside seat to a disturbing trend on U.S. public lands: extremist and militia groups using America’s national forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges to advance their anti-government beliefs.
But these far right-wing organizations are not operating in a vacuum. To the contrary, the armed insurrection in Oregon and Nevada before—led by Ammon Bundy and the Bundy family—share the same foundations as land transfer schemes promoted by some elected leaders in states throughout the West. Both rely upon a philosophy based in vehement anti-government ideologies, both have connections to organizations that espouse armed resistance, both employ pseudo-legal theories to justify their actions, and both use scholarly support from conspiracy theorists and discredited academics.
Our nation’s parks and network of public lands are one of our nest democratic achievements. Americans see management of public lands as one of the things our government does best. But over the last four years, politicians and special interest groups in 11 Western states and in Congress have tried to seize many of these places and turn them over to state and private control.
The elected officials supporting state seizure of U.S. public lands couch their arguments carefully, but our research shows their close associations to extreme individuals, groups, and ideology characterized by anti- government paranoia and a pseudo-science approach to the law.
Since the beginning of 2015 54 land seizure bills have been introduced into Western states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. At least 22 state legislators with direct connections to anti-government ideologies or extremist groups were the primary sponsors on 29 of those bills.
Sitting at the hub of the movement and functioning as the bridge between extremism and the mainstream political debate are Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and their non-profit, the American Lands Council. A close analysis of Rep. Ivory and Sen. Fielder’s activities, and those of other active land seizure proponents at the state level, shows how these efforts are a functional part of an aggressive anti-government movement that will grow more potent if reasonable Americans don’t take action.
Many conservatives—Mr. Ivory among them—criticized Mr. [Ammon] Bundy’s gun-toting tactics, but their grievances and goals are nearly identical.
In the end, the crusade to give American public lands away to the states must be seen for what it is: the latest outgrowth of radical anti-government extremism, which mainstream legislators of both political parties should avoid.
In this report, an update to the original version we released in August 2015, the Center for Western Priorities examines the extremist origins and foundations of the movement to seize American public lands. We describe how public lands issues attract extremist elements, including members of organizations like the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, who use public lands issues to promote their anti-government ideologies. We show that the anti-government supporters of this movement are growing bolder as some elected officials are becoming more open about their support for extremists. Finally, we show how the underpinnings of the movement are well outside mainstream conservative or federalist thought.
The Malheur Standoff & The Coalition of Western States (COWS)
A number of legislators planned, participated in, and supported the Bundy militants during the Oregon standoff.
The militant occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge further deepened the ties between right-wing elected officials and public lands extremists. Led by the Coalition of Western States (COWS)—which formed in the aftermath of the Bundy ranch standoff to “restore management of public lands to the States where it Constitutionally belongs”—politicians from across the West played a high pro le role in the occupation.
Leadership within COWS not only knew about the Bundys’ intention to occupy government property in Oregon before it hap- pened, they also provided material support to the militants. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, COWS’ engagement in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was the “latest step in an ongoing and organized campaign by these lawmakers, essentially the political arm of the militant movement, to make a once-radical political cause part of the mainstream”
Members of COWS passed along intelligence to the militants gleaned from a meeting between the FBI, local of cials, and seven COWS members: Oregon state Rep. Dallas Heard, Washington state Reps. Matt Shea and Graham Hunt, Idaho Reps. Judy Boyle, Sage Dixon, and Heather Scott, and Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. COWS members, including Assemblywoman Fiore and Rep. Shea, also helped the militants plan press events and provided militants with a “security specialist,” Anthony Bosworth. As the FBI worked to bring the occupation to a close, Bosworth helped some militants flee from the wildlife refuge, including Blaine Cooper, who helped the Bundy brothers organize the occupation.
Not only are these lawmakers supporting public land extremists in their illegal attempts to seize public lands, but they are also trying to push bills through state legislatures to seize American public lands. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, for example, sponsored A.B. 408, which declared a swath of U.S. public lands in Nevada “common property of the citizens of the state.” Washington Rep. Matt Shea sponsored H.B. 1192, which would have led to the “disposal” of public lands within Washington. Both pieces of legislation failed.