Changes coming to West as wildlife refuge occupiers await trial

 “The election of Donald Trump does throw a huge wrench into the works,” Notre Dame law professor Bruce Huber said. “To the extent that Trump prevailed among rural voters, it’s entirely possible that we see policy more sympathetic to the occupiers.”

Hope springs eternal. — jtl, 419


Seven protesters involved in the widely publicized, armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge will face federal trial next year despite acquittals won by their leaders and a new administration in Washington that might warm to loosening the reins on land use in the vast expanses of the West.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who with five others were acquitted in October of conspiracy and weapons charges, led the group of self-described patriots who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2. Bundy and many ranchers say tough restrictions on grazing and other uses of federal land threaten their way of life.

The standoff focused a national spotlight on the long-running dispute over control of federal lands.

“The election of Donald Trump does throw a huge wrench into the works,” Notre Dame law professor Bruce Huber said. “To the extent that Trump prevailed among rural voters, it’s entirely possible that we see policy more sympathetic to the occupiers.”

The standoff featured regular press conferences on the refuge and a flow of protesters in and out of the compound unimpeded by law enforcement. The occupiers sought, among other things, to jump-start the slumping local economy by transferring federally managed range land to local or private hands.

Prosecutors argued the protesters were charged not for what they believed but for their actions at the refuge, 300 square miles of wind-swept, high desert in rural eastern Oregon. The jury acquitted the first group on all charges.

Undeterred, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland filed court papers this week saying prosecutors remain committed to putting seven more defendants on trial, adding that misdemeanor counts will be added to the felony charges the first group also faced.

The acquittals make it clear that felony convictions won’t be easy, Huber said. The misdemeanor counts would provide a jury with a compromise option between conviction on felony counts and acquittal.

“Still, I would think the prosecution would still take it as a loss if all they get are misdemeanor convictions,” Huber said.

The political climate may now be improving for the group, he said.

“It’s no slam dunk that anyone can walk in and and decide it’s open season on federal lands,” Huber said. “But the arrows do point to sympathy for private use.”

Elizabeth Sanders, who teaches government at Cornell University, said Republican Interior secretaries are less inhibited in such behavior and need not much worry about the reaction from environmental groups not likely to support them anyway.

“Trump’s environmental appointments suggest a return to the Reagan years and the great private-interest picnic,” Sanders said.

The federal government, and particularly the Bureau of Land Management, plays a crucial role in land use in the West. The government owns more than half of Oregon’s land and almost 40% of all the land in Arizona, where Bundy owns a truck maintenance shop.

The jury acquitted the first group of conspiring to block federal workers from their jobs at the refuge. The confrontation turned deadly Jan. 26, when the group’s spokesman, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was fatally shot by police who stopped Finicum, the Bundys and several others at a roadblock. Ammon Bundy, the face of the protest, urged those remaining at the refuge to end the standoff, and the last holdouts surrendered Feb. 11.

Ammon Bundy testified the group always planned to relinquish control of the refuge. They brought guns, he said, to ensure they were not immediately evicted without having their voices heard.

Kieran Suckling, head of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., said ranchers may get more access to federal lands without ever wresting ownership from the federal government.

“One idea is to give control of the land to states so they can allow all the logging and grazing they want — and keep the money — and let the feds retain ownership and pay for upkeep,” Suckling said.

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