Public land seizure is a dying movement, despite Bundy verdict

The leaders of an armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge were found not guilty Thursday.

Ryan Bundy, center, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, walks through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Ryan Bundy, center, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, walks through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Late Thursday, a jury found Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, and five others “not guilty” for a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

This verdict came as a surprise to many who saw the armed takeover unfold through regularly held press briefings and videos made by the occupants. Despite a huge amount of video, social media, and testimonial evidence, the jury did not find the group guilty of impeding federal workers from doing their jobs, nor of possessing firearms in a federal facility.

“This was not a peaceful protest; this was occupation by gunpoint and it assaulted the very foundation of our democracy, our Constitutional principles, and our shared public lands heritage,” said National Wildlife Federation President Colin O’Mara in a statement. “These criminals prevented Americans from enjoying the wildlife that belong to all of us, destroyed refuge infrastructure, degraded wildlife habitat, and desecrated archaeological treasures.”

“This was not a peaceful protest; this was occupation by gunpoint.”

Eleven members of the takeover pleaded guilty before the trial and seven others are scheduled for trial in February 2017.

Despite the verdict, Bundy’s extreme view on the seizure of public lands is rapidly falling out of favor. Ammon Bundy’s alleged reason for staging the takeover was that publicly owned lands should be given to state and private interests. And while some far right-wing politicians have adopted this shared view, mounting evidence shows this is a dying movement.

In September, the Western Conference of Attorneys General issued legal analysis throwing cold water on the idea that the federal government could be sued to give national public lands to the states. The American Lands Council, a group advocating for seizing public lands, has seen their membership decline by 45 percent.

Additionally, state and national bills to seize public lands have failed across the country, counties across the west are passing resolutions reaffirming the value of public lands, neither major presidential candidates have backed the idea, and poll after poll show this is a losing issue among voters in the West.

The disappearance of the movement from the mainstream shows just how radical the Bundys and the other wildlife refuge militants are on this issue. Though many of those involved have been found not guilty, their views on national lands are far out of step with the large majority of Americans who value national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.

Thursday’s verdict is also not the end of the line for either of the Bundy brothers. Separate federal charges are still pending for the 2014 Bunkerville standoff in Nevada where rancher Cliven Bundy amassed a militia after refusing to pay grazing fees. Nearly 20 people, including Cliven, Ammon, and Ryan Bundy, face charges for conspiracy, assault, and threat to federal officers.

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s verdict, which puts our park rangers and scientists at further risk just for doing their jobs,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities in a statement. “It’s important to remember that no member of the Bundy family walked free after today’s verdict. The most serious charges are still pending in Nevada, in a separate case with much more evidence than was allowed at the trial in Oregon. We look forward to justice being served in that case next year.”

That trial begins in February 2017, where prosecutors will have a chance to make it clear that putting the lives of land management officials at risk will not be tolerated.