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After Republicans Refuse, Democrats Hold Their Own Hearing On The Oregon Wildlife Refuge Takeover

In this Jan. 9, 2016 file photo, men stand guard after members of the “3% of Idaho” group and several other organizations arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Ore. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER, FILE
In this Jan. 9, 2016 file photo, men stand guard after members of the “3% of Idaho” group and several other organizations arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Ore. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER, FILE

Democrats from the House committees on Natural Resources and Homeland Security this week held a joint forum that focused on the steps that need to be taken to confront violent extremism on America’s public lands. The forum comes five months after Ammon Bundy and a group of anti-government extremists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon and held it for 41 days.

The forum addressed the recent threats to federal lands and land management officials, as well as domestic terrorism more broadly. This forum was the first time Congress has addressed extremism on public lands or the dangerous situations created by the Bundy family and their supporters.

At least 10 Democrats from both committees attended the hearing, which included five expert witnesses. The witness panelists included: Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center; J.J. MacNab of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University; Tim Blount, executive director of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship; and Garrett Reppenhagen, the Rocky Mountain Director at Vet Voice Foundation.

The Bundy Legal Defense: Feds Have No Jurisdiction Over Federal LandsCREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File Ammon Bundy, the leader of the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National…thinkprogress.orgIn April, House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva along with Rep. Huffman and Rep. Tsongas requested a full committee oversight hearing on the armed occupation at Malheur and related threats of violence occurring on public lands. Committee Chairman Rob Bishop denied the hearing request and the Majority has so far largely refused to condemn the actions of Bundy and the rest of the armed extremists.

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The fact that this was an informal forum and not a full bi-partisan committee hearing did not go unnoticed. Panelists and members of Congress alike expressed disappointment in the issue’s lack of bipartisan attention.

“It’s a shame that this isn’t an official hearing of the Natural Resources Committee because this is a very serious problem as it relates to our federal lands, our federal law enforcement, but also to the safety and security of the nation,” said Representative DeFazio of Oregon. “Homeland [Security Committee] should also be holding hearings on this threat of domestic terrorism, but they’re not.”

In addition to sweeping the issue under the rug, committee members blamed the rhetoric and actions of Rob Bishop and other anti-park politicians for fanning the flames of these anti-government extremists.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, which was seized by a group of militia on Saturday, January 2, 2016 CREDIT: Cacophony
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, which was seized by a group of militia on Saturday, January 2, 2016 CREDIT: Cacophony

“It is so important that extremism and violence on our public lands be clearly rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike,” said panelist David Jenkins from the right-leaning Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. “Unfortunately, there are a handful of Republican lawmakers that have chosen to sympathize or side with extremists like the Bundys. … [Chairman] Bishop said that he sympathized with the militants’ frustrations and accused land management agencies of abusing people. The Chairman’s rhetoric seems tailor-made to inflame passions and incite more radicalism.”

A handful of politicians have used this type of rhetoric to attack public lands and to legitimize bills to seize and sell public land or get rid of the Antiquities Act. Just this week, one of Bishop’s staffers called a Native American tribal-led request for a Bears Ears national monument “dishonest.”

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But Republican inaction wasn’t the only topic of the forum. Many brought up the troubling amount of threats and violence public servants and public land law enforcement officials face from these radical anti-government groups, both online and in situations like the one at Malheur.

A Center for American Progress report found that since 2014, there have been five armed takeovers of American public lands. Rep. Torrez expressed frustration that there was not quicker and more serious action taken against the extremists and that there was not broader support behind Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officials from Congress. For example, a recent bill from Rep. Chaffetz would abolish the law enforcement capacity of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service officials.

New Bill Would Eliminate Law Enforcement On Public Lands, Despite Risks Of Violent ExtremismCREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer Just one month after the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge…thinkprogress.orgMembers and panelists also stressed the benefits of public lands and the importance of keeping them under the ownership of the American people.

“Not only do these lands belong to all Americans, but I sharply disagree with anyone who seeks to disenfranchise the American people through force of violence and through personal gain,” said Garrett Reppenhagen from Vet Voice Foundation. “These efforts to upend peaceful democratic process upon which our nation is built run contrary to what I as a veteran have fought for.”