The occupation of a wildlife refuge by armed protesters in Oregon reflects a decades-old dispute over land rights in the United States, where local communities have increasingly sought to take back federal land.
While the standoff in rural Oregon was prompted by the jailing of two ranchers convicted of arson, experts say the issue at the core of the dispute runs much deeper and concerns grazing or timber rights as well as permits to work mines on government land in Western states.
“The problem that we are seeing … is how do you manage people who treat the land as though it was their own, even though it was never their own,” said Gerald Torres, a law professor at Cornell University.
“They were merely given a use right rather than an ownership right,” he added. “They view federal managers as somehow overlords, or people who actually do not work the land.”
Federal land ownership in the United States is largely concentrated in the West, where the government overall controls just over half of territory in 13 states, according to government records.
In Oregon, nearly 53 percent of the land is federally owned, while in Alaska the figure stands at 61.2 percent and in Nevada at nearly 85 percent.
“This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over land ownership and use in that part of the country,” according to a 2014 congressional report.
The report adds that while in the 19th century, the federal government enacted many laws to encourage settlement in the West, the 20th century was marked by a movement to retain federal land.
The shift has not gone down well in many states, including Utah, which in recent years have been pushing for the federal government to turn over public lands.
Adding to locals’ resentment in these states are attempts by federal authorities in recent decades to abide by environmental regulations, which has led to more restrictions on mining, grazing and ranching rights.
– ‘It’s anarchy’ –
Frustration boiled over at the weekend in Oregon where a loose-knit group of farmers, ranchers and survivalists took over a wildlife refuge near the town of Burns to support two local ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fire to federal land.
However, the ranchers themselves have distanced themselves from the armed activists who call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as have many locals.
“It’s anarchy,” Len Vohs, a former mayor of Burns, told the Washington Post.
“What we have here is old-style thinking, that might is right.”
But while Vohs and others disagree with the tactics used by the Oregon activists, they say they reflect mounting frustration at what many view as excessive government control over people’s fate.
Torres recalled the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 80s, a movement that sought major changes to federal land control and that was supported by Ronald Reagan.
“When the agriculture and ranching markets are stressed, any effort to raise the grazing fees or even collect the grazing fees seems like an attack,” Torres said.
“That’s combined with efforts to restrict grazing to protect endangered species, or to restrict how much water you can take off the stream.”