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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jan 06 2016

Public Lands in the Grip of Extremists

What binds the lands transfer movement and anti-government fanaticism in Oregon and Montana

Featured, In the Media

Over the weekend, a group of armed fanatics seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon in an attempt to force the federal government to hand the refuge and other public lands in the area over to private interests. One of the militants, Ryan Bundy, vowed “to kill or be killed if necessary.”

Welcome to the dark periphery of the lands transfer movement, a movement that demonizes federal land management agencies, stokes fear and anger throughout the West, and gives ideological and rhetorical support to a well-armed cadre of militia members and other anti-government extremists, some of whom are now occupying Malheur. Indeed, the ties between those pushing the lands transfer movement and anti-government extremists are very close, as shown in a report The Center for Western Priorities released last year.

Sadly, some of these extremists live right here in Montana, making it quite possible that a similar armed seizure of public lands could happen in our state.

In fact, something like Malheur has already happened in Montana. Last summer, armed radicals belonging to the Oath Keepers and other militias descended on a public lands mining site near Lincoln and posted No Trespassing signs. Their purpose, as stated in a press release, was to “act as a buffer between the miners and any unlawful action by the United States Forest Service." 

While the Oathkeepers are sitting out the occupation of Malheur, their actions in Montana reveal the core motivation binding lands transfer proponents and anti-government extremists—and that’s taking lands that belong to every American and handing them over to individuals for their own narrow interests.

Perhaps no event has illustrated this motivation more clearly than the 2014 standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada, where the Oath Keepers made a name for themselves before arriving in Montana last summer.

During the standoff, several militia snipers took aim at federal agents and forced them to release a herd of Cliven Bundy’s cattle. The BLM had rounded up Bundy’s cattle as payment for the more than $1 million in grazing fees the rancher owed American taxpayers for using public lands. Bundy still hasn’t paid his grazing fees and still, astonishingly, hasn’t been charged with any crime. His cattle continue to graze illegally on public lands.

Organizing the snipers at the Bundy Ranch standoff was Montanan Ryan Payne. This is how Payne described the standoff to the Missoula Independent: “We locked them down… We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy – sometimes two guys – per BLM agent in there. So, it was a complete tactical superiority... If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would’ve died.” 

Payne is one of the militants at Malheur, having joined three of Cliven Bundy’s sons in seizing the refuge. 

You might think that associating with the likes of Payne and the Bundy family might be a political liability for elected officials. But ready to join Payne at the Bundy ranch in 2014 was Montana state legislator and lands transfer proponent Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), who announced on his Facebook page at the time that he would be going to Nevada to “stand with Mr. Bundy” and described the standoff as being “about government control over people’s lives and over reach of the federal government” – rhetoric that matches, almost word for word, that of the Malheur occupiers. 

White isn’t the only legislator and lands transfer proponent in Montana who is comfortable aligning with anti-government extremists. The face of the lands transfer movement in Montana, Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) was, according to her Facebook page, a board member of the Sanders Natural Resource Council (SNRC), run also by members of the Militia of Montana, including known white supremacist John Trochmann. 

For the last few years, Fielder has also been the Montana cheerleader for the American Lands Council, a nonprofit group pushing lands transfer at state capitols throughout the West and in Washington, D.C. The group is run by Utah state representative Ken Ivory, who has also forged relationships with numerous anti-government extremist groups and individuals, including the Sanders Natural Resource Council, to whom Ivory spoke while touring Montana with Fielder in 2013.

 This week ALC has made several cryptic statements on its Facebook page regarding the occupation of Malheur, one objecting to it and several more regurgitating the rhetoric and ideology fueling the occupiers. 

It’s time we recognize what the lands transfer movement is, at its core, about. It’s about prioritizing private interests and frustrations over the greater good of having lands that all American can access and enjoy. It’s also about fear, paranoia, and anger, all projected at the government. And as we can see, these emotions trend naturally toward violence.

Thankfully, most Montanans want to live in a world that isn’t ruled by fear and threats of violence. Most of us remain interested in protecting and expanding our public lands for the enjoyment and health of all, and working together toward land management solutions when disagreements arise.

One action that Montanans can take now in response to Malheur is letting Governor Steve Bullock know how you feel about our public lands, how you think we can keep something like Malheur from happening here, and how we can protect those lands for everyone to enjoy.


At Montana Wilderness Association, we urge fellow Montanans to condemn extremism and to celebrate the greatest treasure we have in the Treasure State: our public lands.

- Ted Brewer, MWA communications manager