by RaeLynn Ricarte

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was an embodiment of Dr. King’s message. A group of ranchers made a stand to start a national conversation about the unconstitutionality of the federal government hoarding huge swaths of land across the west.

In Nevada, the feds now own more than 85 percent of the land base, creating hardship for ranchers who are being squeezed out of business because there isn’t enough available grassland for grazing.

Oregon makes the list of top 10 for the amount of acreage in federal ownership. In addition the state owns about 1.7 million acres and land is also tied up in conservation preserves and off limits to most human activity.

The message of Ammon Bundy and other occupiers of the Malheur refuge fell largely on deaf ears in the Northeast and South because the federal government owns less than 5 percent of the land in these states.

But in rural Oregon, where economies are stagnant or declining, there was plenty of support for Bundy and others who were demanding change. People might not have agreed with their tactics, but they could relate to the position.

Rural counties have no hope of achieving the same level of prosperity as their urban counterparts when they have so little available land to work with.

For decades ranchers have literally been losing ground as environmental rules whittle down the number of acres available for anything other than recreation use.

Our founders tried to stop the growing sense of injustice and outrage that led to the Oregon standoff and other confrontations between ranchers and bureaucrats in recent years.

The framers put a property clause in the U.S. Constitution that does not allow for the government to engage in a land grab.

The Constitution outlined that the federal government could possess properties that had not yet been formally carved into states and property for military forts, post officers and other “needful” buildings.

Nothing in the Constitution authorizes the feds to hold resource lands in perpetuity.

The feds were expected by the founders to sell off non-essential land and distribute the monies in a way that benefitted the public good, such as paying off debt or tax cuts.

Systematic attacks on the property rights of Americans for the past several decades have been justified through deliberate misreadings of the Constiution by politicians who want the government to have more power and activist judges.

This situation was allowed to get out of control by the American people. And it will only change when they wake up and begin demanding a return to Constitutional principles. Independence was the clarion call of the American Revolution and the basis behind the Constitution that maximized personal liberties by tying the hands of government. Abuse of power is what led to the battle for a new world free from tyranny. When acts of civil disobedience by otherwise law-abiding people began to occur once again, it is time for change.

by Mark Gibson

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in eastern Oregon was occupied for 41 days, and the federal trial in Portland the trial of the standoff’s leader, Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others took six weeks. And the verdict came in just five days: all defendants were found not guilty of federal conspiracy charges.

The verdict was described, in virtually every news account that followed, as a surprise.

“But the jury, in a verdict that surprised almost everyone, including the defendants and their lawyers, rejected the government’s case entirely, voting unanimously to acquit all seven defendants,” reported the New York Times. “I’ve done more federal trials than I can count and I’ve never won like this,” said Matthew A. Schindler, a lawyer representing the defendant Kenneth Medenbach, quoted in the Times report.

The exact reasoning of the jurors, made up of Oregonians who were never identified by name in court, remains unknown but most onlookers have blamed prosecutorial overreach — that the government stretched its case for conspiracy too far to fit the events at the refuge — or stumbles in the presentation of evidence by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There are questions, for example, regarding government use of paid informants sent to the refuge during the standoff, which the prosecution only grudgingly admitted to during the trial. And according to a report on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, defense lawyers pointed out that questions regarding evidence, like the wealth of ammunition collected from the refuge and presented as evidence, were not answered by the FBI. Simple questions, like “where did this bullet come from? Who did it belong to?”

The conspiracy charges leveled against the occupiers, the jury decided, were inappropriate. Though often used for criminal enterprises — like a plot to steal money or to sell illegal drugs — conspiracy was a poor explanation of the occupation, which drew an array of people with grievances against the federal government.

The verdict was not, given the narrow scope of the charges and what was apparently a poor quality investigation and prosecution, a justification of the occupation but a narrow question of law.

The question of federal land management remains.

It’s a big issue in Oregon, where 53.1 percent of the state is owned by the federal government. (That is 52,240 square miles of Oregon’s 98,381 square miles of land.)

In the past 108 years – the refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 – the refuge has served the interests of wildlife, hunters and others by providing safe and pristine habitat, primarily for migratory waterfowl.

Why are questions of federal ownership being raised now?

Throughout the West, the “multiple use” of federal lands is being eroded. In the Mount Hood National Forest above Dufur, for example, local cattlemen have abandoned open rangeland after generations of use because current rules have become so restrictive that grazing cattle – one of the uses the forest was originally created to protect – has become economically unfeasible.

It’s no surprise residents are “up in arms” as the promises of the past are increasingly being violated.

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