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At the Intersection of Public and Private

by Ken Root

I am concerned about a standoff now underway between U.S. citizens in Oregon and the Federal Government at a remote wildlife refuge.  It seems to be a long way away but so was Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where Randy Weaver and his family were confronted by federal agents who killed his wife when events escalated.  It is part of our history for people to push back against the government but there is always fear that isolated events will cause mainstream conflict and threaten the nation.

I would draw this historical parallel in the history of white settlement of Indian Territory.  It began with landless people, many Civil War veterans, seeing the Native American refuge as a wasted and unused resource.  Battles with the plains Indians from the 1850’s through the 1880’s, punctuated by the killing of General George Custer at Little Big Horn, increased anger at all Native Americans and caused whites to confront the government with their claim that the land should be opened for settlement.  In the 1870’s, whites began to enter the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and attempt to settle.  Their civil disobedience was justified by those who believed it countered government over-reach.  The disfavor of Native Americans and government desire for westward migration of citizens caused re-evaluation of policies of the day.  The end result was Congressional agreement that government had no right to hold the land.  In April of 1889, the first of several tracts were opened for legal settlement and the country moved ahead. 

The current conflict between ranchers and government is also based on private citizens viewing government policies as a hindrance of commerce and rights granted by the U.S. constitution.  How it is interpreted is the question:  Should our government allow all land to be exploited by private ownership?  Should government more narrowly define its role in preservation of wildlife habitat and natural landscapes?  Should land be sold to citizens and taxed according to value and use?

Any bureaucracy justifies its existence.  The Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service or National Park Service all want to keep their domain intact so they can keep their jobs.  Most employees of these federal entities are dedicated public servants so I don’t fault them but I do see a tendency of all agencies to protect and expand their turf.  Moving legislation through Congress to reduce government ownership of land would bring strong opposition from conservationists, environmentalists and public employees. 

There surely is a back story of the men and women who now occupy Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  It is a region that has seen anti-government hostility before and is remote enough that outside influences are minimal.  I would dare compare it to the Plains in the twentieth century, when weather and government policies pushed some residents to share anti-government sentiment and adopt a distorted interpretation of the Posse Comitatus.  The Act, signed into law in the 1870’s, allowed former military men to act as their own law enforcement against those who would do them harm or threaten their community.  In the modern sense, defense needed to be against the government itself.

There is only a slim chance of a good outcome for the protestors.  Law enforcement is keeping a low profile and may have learned how not to handle an insurrection from actions at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas in 1993.  Surveillance methods are much more sophisticated today so I’m hoping law enforcement stands back and monitors the situation for as long as it takes.

This intersection of government control and private citizen’s rights in the Oregon standoff is no different than the high profile police shootings in our major cities.  One side has power and willingness to use force to subdue the other.  Those who see themselves as oppressed, play their citizen card and state their right to stand against an over-reaching government.  The actions of a few result in social conflict for the many. People are forced to take a side in the debate.  Some are comparing Oregon’s occupation to John Brown’s raid that was a contributing factor in starting the Civil War.  I hope not.

I consider myself a person of reason and peaceful intent unless attacked.  My referential experiences are not those of oppressed ranchers or racial profiling.  I do have hope our country can show flexibility to avoid strife and social upheaval by examining and modernizing policies and laws.  The mountains aren’t going to go back to the settlers and the streets aren’t going to be vacated by police.  We don’t want that but it’s clear the current climate requires change.