The Oregon Standoff: Race, Land Use, and Environmental Protection

Mayors and governors should follow this situation closely as a lesson on how these social justice issues will play out in cities across America.

Image AP Photo/Rebecca Boone
Ryan Bundy talks on the phone at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Bundy is one of the protesters occupying the refuge to object to a prison sentence for local ranchers for burning federal land. (AP Photo/Rebecca Boone)

The militia that has taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Harney County, Oregon, has been hashtagged derisively as the #yallqaeda or #VanillaISIS movement. The conceit behind these labels is that these men have resorted to terrorist measures to make a political statement. Some of the militia men are reportedly armed, have vowed to go out in a blaze of glory for their cause, and have military veterans among them to help see that through.

While their tactics are hoary, at best, the issues they are standing on represent tensions that cities across America are either already contending with, or soon will be, namely racism and land use. Mayors and governors should be closely examining how this standoff came together and how it will come apart, as there will likely be more squabbles about these issues in the very near future.

The reason cited by militia spokesman Ammon Bundy for taking over the wildlife refuge center is that they feel the federal government has been encroaching too aggressively on private property. This is similar to the battle cry of his father Clive Bundy, who notoriously also held a standoff with government authorities over ranch land in Nevada in 2014. Ammon Bundy’s complaint is about land owned and managed by the federal government for environmental conservation and how it affects Oregon ranchers. Bundy said, “Their land and resources have been taken from them to the point where its putting them literally in poverty.”

Clearly, Bundy was not talking about the lives of Native American Paiutes, the original inhabitants of the place that the militia has taken over. As Steve Russell writes for the Indian Country Today Media Network, “Ironically, the ‘legal’ basis for starting a fight with the federal government is that sovereignty ‘really’ belongs to Oregon rather than the Paiutes, who have seen their federal trust land shrink from over one and a half million acres to a tiny remnant of 760 acres in Burns, Oregon, where this current armed standoff began.”

Bundy wants the wildlife refuge shuttered for good so that the land can be handed over to “local ranchers, loggers and miners,” and other private property owners. His brother Ryan Bundy said, as reported in The Oregonian, that “the best possible outcome” would be that the ranchers get to “reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”

Conservative complaints about the government’s seizing of private property for its own purposes—even for socially good purposes—aren’t new. The Bundys, however, appear to be adopting the bold protest strategies of groups like Occupy Wall St. and Black Lives Matter— kicking it up a few notches by threatening armed violence. But those strategies aren’t exactly novel either. There’s no good reason to compare the militia in Oregon to BLM. But at the core of both protests are questions of what constitutes “public space” versus “private property,” and how racism informs entitlement in either case.

We see these questions arising in government plans devised in Chicago, New York City and cities across California requiring real estate developers to include a certain percentage of housing units for sale or rent at below-market rates. These plans are being met with lawsuits saying that such policies amount to unconstitutional government “takings.” A closer reading might show that those controlling the development of properties in these cities are simply uninterested in relinquishing some of that control in ways that would benefit people of color, by making the properties more accessible.

The land owners and real estate developers behind those lawsuits sound like Bundy and crew in that they are accusing governments of plundering their resources. The irony is that it has been African Americans in cities like Chicago and New York City who have been plundered out of land, homes, property, and businesses for decades, dating deep into the 19th century. And, before them, as Russell points out, it was Native Americans plundered even more harshly, particularly in the parts the Bundy militia has presently have taken over. Writes Russell:

If anything is clear-cut about Indians in the Constitution, it is that relations with Indian nations are a federal responsibility. Carrying out that responsibility in Oregon, President U.S. Grant established the Maiheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872. It is no coincidence that the historical reservation shares a name with the Maiheur National Wildlife Refuge, site of the current armed standoff.

White settlement nibbled at the Maiheur Indian Reservation until the Bannock War in 1878, which ended with surrendered Paiutes and Bannocks on the reservation being removed, officially to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory. Unofficially, Paiutes had scattered all over the Western States that comprised their aboriginal lands. The Burns Paiute Reservation is the remains of the Maiheur Reservation and the Maiheur Wildlife Refuge is an alternative use for the federal land, for those who believe the federal government exists.

The Oregon takeover came after a rally for two ranchers, Dwight L. Hammond and his son Steven D. Hammond, who have been convicted and imprisoned for arson on federal lands. But Bundy said that the Hammonds are just “symptoms of a very huge, egregious problem”—a problem Bundy pins on the EPA, which he accuses of “taking property away from the American people” for tyrannical reasons. Said Bundy in an interview posted on his Facebook page:

[The EPA is] doing it by controlling the land and the resources because they know where wealth generates from, it generates from the land and the earth. And so if they can control them they know they will be the beneficiaries of them and the American people will have to beg them for whatever they give them, and that is what this is about.

If that’s the case, then climate change planning, both from EPA and local governments, will no doubt exacerbate such land squabbles as certain areas become more untenable for humans, wildlife, and businesses. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan commits states to making a number of land-use decisions in order to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. There are 26 states that have filed suit against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan along this same line of thinking. Oregon is not one of them—in fact, it has joined in with a coalition of states that have filed a motion in support of EPA’s climate change plan.

Oregon has mandated that its utilities pull 25 percent of their energy loads from renewable sources. Achieving that goal will mean making land use decisions, such as converting certain areas into wind turbine fields and solar farms. That kind of land conversion has shaken up a town in North Carolina, out of fears that solar panels are eating up too much land around it.  

Cities will increasingly have to address these kinds of tensions, and what they mean for public space, private property, and what ultimately is the greatest public good. Doing that, though, will require acknowledging racial equity in land management and planning.

What the Bundy clan is doing now is an example of what happens when white entitlement is followed to its extreme, without any racial justice lens or civil rights consideration to temper it. The militia hasn’t so much as even nodded to the fact that they are standing on Native Paiute grounds. And yet, it’s not really all that extreme at all when held up against history. In fact, the whiteness of the Bundy militia doesn’t really seem all that spectacular. A large part of that is because Oregon is not exactly known for attracting black and Latino residents. It’s also because, as Matt Novak wrote for Gizmodo last year, Oregon was created as a sanctuary for white people:

When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. Oregon’s founding is part of the forgotten history of racism in the American west. …

According to Oregon’s founding constitution, black people were not permitted to live in the state. And that held true until 1926. The small number of black people already living in the state in 1859, when it was admitted to the Union, were sometimes allowed to stay, but the next century of segregation and terrorism at the hands of angry racists made it clear that they were not welcome.

So when Bundy says that they came to Oregon because “the people have been abused long enough,” we know what people he’s not talking about. Land titles are principally about ownership, but in America that’s not easily distanced from racism, when considering who historically was able to purchase and maintain land and who wasn’t.

Portland is one of the few cities in America attempting to grapple with that racial history. It’s made racial equity a priority in its climate change planning, through a months-long process that dealt upfront with the policy expectations and obligations for protecting people of color and low income. The implementation of that plan could very well lead to a flurry of more standoffs from people who believe it is unfair to share or redistribute their property to those of lesser means, even if the way the property was obtained was unfair to begin with.

Legal authorities in all of these situations will have to have a firm understanding of where the greatest good in all of this lies, in terms of racial and environmental, justice.

About the Author

  • Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.