On Wednesday, President Obama designated two national monuments in Utah and Nevada, covering more than 1.6 million acres across the two states. While the decision is a victory for the coalition of conservationists and Native American tribes who supported the sites’ designation, it is also likely to become yet another rallying cry for the militant Patriot movement at a moment in time when anti-government extremists find themselves somewhat directionless.
While the Patriot movement—members of which occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year—is not a monolithic or ideologically coherent thing by any stretch of the imagination, it does have certain unifying issues and principles: an overarching anti-government sentiment, which usually also entails coded racism and xenophobia and often produces undisguised insurrectionary rhetoric; uncompromising belief in the necessity (and vulnerability) of the Second Amendment; and a deep antipathy towards federal control of public lands in the western United States, which it sees as unnecessary and tyrannical. It is unfortunate, then, that Gold Butte—at 300,000 acres, the smaller of the two newly designated national monuments—should abut the Bundy ranch, where, in 2014, the family patriarch Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with federal agents who’d seized 400 of his cattle after twenty years of letting them graze on protected land.
The Bundys are the most prominent members of the Patriot movement: Two years after Cliven led the standoff in Bunkerville, his son, Ammon, led the occupation in Oregon. They are also, after a fashion, the most media-savvy. In a statement released on Facebook, the family said they were “saddened, but not surprised” by the decision to designate Gold Butte (“our ranch and home”) a national monument. The statement, which is addressed to President Obama, continues:
If any of this were really about protecting the land, you would come here, work with the local people who love this land, those who have a vested interest in this land, and take the time to learn what this land really needs. This is about control, pure and simple. You don’t love this land, you have never visited here, but you love being in control of this land. The problems we have had with federal land management have never been about cows, tortoises, or fees. It has always been about the constitutional limits on the federal government’s authority. While you enjoy a vacation in Hawaii we are here caring for this land and resisting federal overreach. Shame on you for undoing with your pen the good work we have done with our sweat for generations. We call on Attorney General Adam Laxalt to fight this to the fullest extent of the law!
“It’s important to remember that Bundy Ranch is not a ‘ranch’ that would be recognizable by any real ranchers,” Aaron Weiss, a spokesperson for the Center for Western Priorities, told Jezebel in an email. “His cows ran feral, neglected most of the time. Gold Butte was deserving of protection because of its cultural, historical, and archaeological significance. The designation was long overdue with or without the ecological damage caused by the Bundys’ illegal grazing.”
“If any remaining Bundy followers decide to use these national monuments to try another armed standoff, they can look forward to joining Cliven, Ammon, Ryan, and Mel in jail,” Weiss added. Thus far, however, no major Patriot figures have called for another standoff; in fact, calling on the attorney general to block the monuments’ designation is just about the most civil course of action avowed anti-government militants could take. That is because the Bundys and their followers still believe that Donald Trump is sympathetic to their cause, and may even reverse Obama’s decision.
The Trump camp has cultivated this belief by floating names and taking meetings with people who are explicitly sympathetic to the Patriot movement, but as anti-government extremism expert J.J. MacNab writes on Twitter, “the honeymoon is about to end.” The first anniversary of the beginning of the Malheur occupation is January 2nd; the first anniversary of the occupation’s only fatality, Lavoy Finicum, is January 26th; the first defendants in the Bundy Ranch standoff go on trial in Las Vegas on February 6th; seven more defendants from the Malheur occupation go on trial on February 14th. There has been no indication from the incoming Trump administration that the president-elect will step in at any point to bail them out. In fact, his Interior Secretary nominee appears to oppose fundamental aspects of the Patriot’s land-use agenda—namely, that they should be transferred to state control, so that they might more readily be acquired or leased by timber and fossil fuel companies looking to shirk federal environmental regulations.
This is not an agenda that enjoys popular support, but its advocates—militants like the Bundys, and legislators like Gary Herbert, the Republican governor of Utah; Mike Lee, the Republican junior senator from Utah; and Rob Bishop, Republican representative from Utah, are sufficiently influential to keep the movement alive even in the face of setbacks like the Gold Butte and Bears Ears monuments. “The Bundys and their enablers in Congress are never lacking for perceived slights to try to excuse their behavior,” Weiss wrote in his email. “If it wasn’t Bears Ears and Gold Butte, it would have been something else.”
Bishop, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has appeared at a number of events hosted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which is pushing land-transfer legislation in state houses across the country. Now, with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, Bishop has a chance to repeal the Antiquities Act itself—the law that gives presidents the authority to designate federal lands as national monuments.
“The government should be scared. They are in the wrong,” Ryan Bundy told the Washington Post in November, following his acquittal in the Malheur occupation trial, when asked about the possibility of Gold Butte being designated a national monument. “The only peaceful resolution to all this is for them to obey the Constitution,” he said, condemning (as ever) Obama’s abuse of power. “Read it, understand it, abide by it. There doesn’t have to be violence. None of that has to happen if they would just abide by the Constitution.”