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Nature Caught in the Crosshairs at Oregon Militia Standoff

A year after Cliven Bundy’s famous face off with feds, self-styled “Patriots” are refusing to bend to the BLM’s environmental regulations.

A scene from the BLM standoff with Cliven Bundy

It’s been a year since a big-bellied, nap-taking, and explicitly racist Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy incited an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in southern Nevada. Bundy backlogged $1 million in unpaid grazing fees owed to the BLM (more than all other ranchers combined) for releasing way too many cattle on 578,000 acres of precious public land that’s also the habitat for the endangered desert tortoise. This anniversary is important because the legacy of that confrontation has not been forgotten in the sprawling and unpeopled wild areas blanketing the west. Now, at a gold mine in Oregon, another right-wing group is taking a stand against the BLM, its authority, and its regulations, environmental and otherwise.

Earlier this month, two men with a claim to mine on a piece of public property in Southern Oregon clashed with the BLM over the surface rights to the land. The miners, Rick Barclay and George Backes, claimed to own the rights, but the BLM claimed that the rights belonged to the government—which would mean the men’s mining operation was illegal. The BLM issued a letter giving the miners three choices: they could submit a plan of operations to come into compliance, cease activity altogether by removing the equipment and cabin, or file an appeal.

The miners finally filed an appeal last Wednesday, but for weeks, they’ve been holed up with the local chapter of the Oath Keepers militia in Josephine County to ostensibly “defend” their mining claim from the BLM. The Oath Keepers are an anti-government, paramilitary group that rigorously participated in the Bundy showdown. They took to social media to rally other anti-government militia from across the country and bring them to the mine, using the BLM as the existential motivating threat facing the miners. The push on social media was a resounding success. Soon, the Three Percenters joined the cause. According to their Facebook page, their name alludes to the three percent of early U.S. settlers that took up arms against the English. The Oath Keepers set up a command center near the mine, posted guards at the entrance, and enacted patrols.

Oath Keepers at a rally. Photo by Ryan Lenz via the Southern Poverty Law Center

Last Thursday, around 50 of these militia members, some armed to the teeth, showed up at a regional BLM office to protest on behalf of the miners. In anticipation of a potential threat, and verified reports that BLM personnel received threatening phone calls, the offices closed.

“We come across issues from mining claims all the time,” BLM spokesperson Jim Whittington told me. “We try to work with folks, because we understand this is a complicated set of laws that we’re operating under, and we are usually able to reach a kind of solution.”

When I asked Whittington if there could be any Environmental Species Act or Clean Air and Water Act violations, he said that was the purpose of pushing the miners into compliance—so that the other regulatory bodies might examine the plan of operations and evaluate possible consequences. Among other things, the BLM noted that the miners used mini-excavators and small bull dozers to install a water pipe system. And although Sugar Pine isn’t directly on the Galice Creek, the mine is in the conifer woods nearby, and the creek itself flows into the Rogue River, near the section protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The BLM also found a milling facility on a recently laid slab of concrete, and a small ball mill used to extract gold from ore. Unless the miners submit a plan, it’s hard to know what processes they are using, but there are mining methods that incorporate mercury and cyanide in the extraction process, making their water management an issue of some concern. Also of concern is the endangered northern spotted owl, which makes its home in that area of Oregon woods.

Northern Spotted Owl

It’s also important to keep in mind, despite the general impression given by the miners and their supporters, the land in question is public land. Its real owners are taxpayers. Yet the miners argue they have a claim that dates back to the 19th century that exempts their claim from following more recent laws.

“The miners assert that pre-1955 mining claims somehow give them title to the surface and immunity from federal public land and environmental law,” said Roger Flynn, the Director and Managing Attorney of Western Mining Action Project and an Adjunct Law Professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Law. WMAP is a public interest law firm that specializes in mining law. “Such an unfounded legal argument would be quickly rejected by any court.”

Though we don't know if the group's resistance actually represents an environmental threat yet, they have already shown flagrant aggression against environmental groups that have gone head to head with miners in southern Oregon. For example, Kerby Jackson, an activist for the miners and local spokesperson for the Galice mining district, doxed an employee of a local environmental group on social media last year. Jackson and other gold miners in Josephine County posted the home address and contact information of the conservationist worker because they disliked the pro-environmental legislation the small group advocated in the state legislature. “I wouldn't call it a death threat,” Jackson coyly told the local newspaper. It was a dirty example of a common fight over land in the west, pitting environmentalists who advocate for careful resource extraction against bootstrapping, gun-waving, conspiracy-pushing misanthropes.

For their part, the miners have become something of a victim to their own success. The mine’s owners recently tried to back away from obvious comparisons to the Bundy standoff. “We don't need any more volunteers, we're not under attack, this is not the Bundy Ranch,” Barclay told a local paper two weeks ago. But it’s hard to see what’s happening at the Sugar Pine Mine in any other context, and the presence of armed groups continued to expand this week. Like Bundy, these miners are refusing to yield to basic regulatory processes that are supposed to protect the integrity of public land. Bundy’s son even said two family representatives traveled to Oregon to support the miners.

The Rogue River in Oregon. Photo by Hamad Darwish from Medford, Oregon, USA via Wikimedia Commons

The environmental disregard—and outright antagonism by pro-mining activists like Jackson and his ilk—also echo perhaps the biggest legacy Bundy will leave behind, besides a huge family: environmental devastation. A biologist told writer Christopher Ketcham, in an investigative article for Harper’s, that the land and tortoise habitat over which Bundy’s cattle had roamed and grazed was “beaten to shit.” Trampling and munching atop native grasses had ruined the ecosystem, while invasive species of grass cropped up to take their place. The environmental fallout of twenty years of neglect is stunning.

Even more ironic from an environmental perspective is that conservationists and their heavily armed antagonists probably have more in common than they’d like to think. The BLM more often than not faces the ire of conservationist groups who are dissatisfied with approved private uses of public lands. The bureau is also often on the other end of conservationist lawsuits after they approve resource extraction, controversial hunting, or cattle-grazing.

When the BLM balked last year and released Bundy’s cattle, it wasn’t clear what would happen going forward. The answer is, a year later, not much. Bundy’s cattle still roam uninhibited across public land, and he still owes grazing fees. The government has been slow to respond to FOIA requests by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. What documents they have obtained indicate the BLM hasn’t linked up with the Department of Justice to indict Bundy or his anti-conservationist lawlessness. Whenever the Oath Keepers and other militiamen decide to pack up and leave the Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon, the lasting influence of their call to arms may well be something like Bundy’s: impunity from government regulation, with the environment left to suffer.

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