LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Right fight; wrong strategy.
That’s what many ranchers and sympathizers opposing federal control of public lands in the West concluded after the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.
For some, the weekslong standoff that ended Thursday with the surrender of the final occupiers has only strengthened their resolve to fight the government’s control of vast expanses of Western land. But not all condone the tactics of the armed group that drew the nation’s gaze to the snowy landscapes of eastern Oregon.
“We’re not backing off,” said Greg Whalen, a military veteran from Las Vegas who supports the Bundy ranching family that led the occupation. “We’re actually going to fight harder — peacefully.”
Whalen and others say protests must remain a key part of the strategy — but they must be civil to avoid giving a reason for arrests.
Others suggest the battle should shift to the courts to pry authority over open space from the federal government. State lawmakers, notably in Utah, are considering a legal way to take control of U.S. lands that account for a majority of the West, including most of Nevada; about two-thirds of Utah, Idaho and Alaska; and half of Oregon.
Federal officials say U.S. control ensures the land is used in the interest of the environment, outdoor enthusiasts and industries, such as ranching, mining, and oil and gas.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert denounced the tactics in the standoff but called it “a wakeup call for all of us that there (are) legitimate issues out there that are causing frustration.”
Supporters say sympathy from prominent Western politicians shows that their mantra — that locals can do a better job managing federal lands than out-of-touch bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. — has been embraced by more than gun-toting protesters.
“We’re not just cowboys with hats who are hicks and don’t know what’s going on,” said LisaMarie Johnson, who stood with Cliven Bundy at his Nevada ranch in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents. Bundy is the father of the Oregon occupation’s leaders.
“People in New York City don’t understand what’s going on out here,” the Nevada resident said.
The dispute predates statehood in some places. But calls for action have gotten louder as federal agencies designate protected areas for endangered species and set aside tracts for mining, wind farms and natural gas exploration. The latest wave has roots in the Sagebrush Rebellion, which began more than 40 years ago over grazing rights in Nevada.
Occupiers that seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Jan. 2 demanded the U.S. turn over the land to locals and release two ranchers imprisoned for setting fires.
Tom Haynie, a 58-year-old Las Vegas resident who’s also passionate about solar energy, medical marijuana and water in the West, subscribes to a common belief in the movement.
“The government wants to control everything,” Haynie said. “But it’s the people’s land, not the federal government’s land.”
Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah, said it appears the federal government is trying to send a message: You will face legal consequences if you cross the line from peaceful protest.
Cliven Bundy was arrested Wednesday in Portland for his actions nearly two years ago in the Nevada standoff.
A total of 25 people have been charged in the Oregon occupation.
Four people were prosecuted in Utah for riding ATVs on an off-limits trail in 2014, including a well-known county commissioner who was convicted and became a cause celebre in the movement.
Therein lies the danger in the federal strategy: The intended message may be misinterpreted, Tolman said.
“I think people are going to be more hardened and more upset, and in some ways, you make martyrs out of those who have chosen this route,” he said.
Many are giving that status to Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who was killed by police in a Jan. 26 traffic stop that also led to the arrests of Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy.
Finicum, an Oregon standoff spokesman, was memorialized at his funeral last week near the Utah-Arizona border as a freedom fighter murdered in the name of liberty. Authorities say he was reaching for a gun.
Some worry that the Bundys will garner similar sympathy as they remain in jail. But others say they don’t consider them leaders of a movement that has more moderate voices working through the courts.
“How can you go up there and take over government property and expect to accomplish anything from it?” said Demar Dahl, an Elko County commissioner in Nevada and advocate for state control of lands. “Whatever we do, we’ve got to do within the law.”
Jerry DeLemus travelled twice from his home in New Hampshire to play peacemaker — once during the Nevada standoff and once during the Oregon occupation.
“I love the Bundys,” DeLemus said this week. “But they made a tactical mistake going out to that refuge. They were portrayed as armed anti-government protesters taking over government buildings. There was a lot of fear.”
McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; Michelle L. Price in Salt Lake City; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.