The showdown between federal agents and armed militants in Southeast Oregon will likely further polarize the public over the management of federal lands, experts say.
For some, the recent killing of an armed protester and arrests of several others will buttress the view they were extremist militants with unrealistic goals.
For others, the government’s actions and its siege of remaining protesters occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will confirm fears of persecution by federal agencies.
Whether the standoff will ultimately lead to changes in the federal government’s oversight of the West’s vast public lands is also subject to varying interpretations.
Char Miller, an environmental analysis professor at Pomona College, said that Ammon Bundy and the other armed protesters miscalculated the public’s reaction to the occupation.
The national attention may have boosted the protester’s egos, but it also created a backlash against using the threat of violence to influence federal land policy, Miller said.
“What they’ve done is really hurt those with legitimate beefs with the federal government about how the land should be managed,” he said.
In the public’s mind, the protesters’ hostile tactics have been conflated with the goal of increasing local control over federal property, which weakens their case in the political arena, he said.
“If they wanted an uprising in Congress, they just made it that much harder,” Miller said.
The protesters’ actions won’t bolster attempts to transfer federal land to the states, which already had legitimacy among conservative lawmakers in multiple state legislatures before the refuge takeover, said Martin Nie, a natural resource policy professor at the University of Montana.
“They’re less of a spectacle and should be taken more seriously,” Nie said.
The philosophy of Bundy and his followers, meanwhile, is entangled with far-right interpretations of the U.S. Constitution and the power of county sheriffs but does not offer any serious proposals for changing federal land policy, he said.
“I don’t think this spectacle has helped that cause at all,” he said.
Among people who were uneasy about excessive federal authority, though, recent events will likely reinforce the notion that the government is out-of-control, said Mark Pollot, an attorney who is fighting federal agencies in court on behalf of deceased Nevada rancher Wayne Hage.
Left-wing protests, such as “Occupy Wall Street,” invaded private property and were more disruptive than the refuge standoff but did not elicit a similarly strong-armed reaction from the federal government, he said.
Pollot said that distrust of the government will particularly rise if there are indications that federal agents overreacted during the arrests and did not have to shoot the protesters’ spokesman, LaVoy Finicum.
If nothing else, the confrontation will show that Western land policy is more than a minor issue and deserves Congressional attention, Pollot said.
“It will add some weight to the debate,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s the risk of a shift away from the political and legal channels that critics such as Wayne Hage have traditionally used in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” against federal land policy, he said.
“I’m concerned there will be people who will now think that’s worthless,” Pollot said.
The restrictions placed on ranchers have gained visibility in Washington, D.C., Salem and Portland, but that doesn’t mean they will be changed, said Bruce Weber, director of Oregon State University’s Rural Studies Program.
It’s unclear how the existence of a perceived “martyr for the cause” will change the situation, Weber said.
“People who believe the Constitution prohibits federal ownership and management of those particular lands won’t change their minds,” he said.
Concerns about growing federal restrictions on public lands long predate the refuge occupation and will likely continue even if the current conflict is resolved.
Bob Skinner, a fifth-generation cattle rancher in the Jordan Valley area, heads a group opposed to the proposed Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness and conservation area, which would cover 2.5 million acres in Oreogn’s Malheur County.
The designation would severely regulate or prohibit grazing and other activities on an area that is bigger than Yellowstone National Park and covers 40 percent of Malheur County.
Skinner said his worst fear is that the arrests of several protesters and the death of Finicum will “activate” people who hold similar anti-government views.
Even so, the incident has brought more visibility to Western concerns over public land.
“I can’t help but think it’s brought some awareness to government over-reach, that might have some impact,” Skinner said.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., compared the standoff in southeast Oregon to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which arose in reaction to conflicts between law enforcement and the black community.
“Rural America faces the same lack of recognition,” Schrader said.
There’s a “palpable sense” that government policy has focused on the economic welfare of urban areas while overlooking rural areas, he said.
As to the effect of the occupation on the federal land debate, Schrader said the impact is uncertain.
While people sympathize with the hardships faced in the rural West, the occupation has also shown they have no appetite for lawlessness, he said.
Schrader said he and other members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation are pushing to reform overly restrictive rules on grazing and logging while protecting the environment on federal property.
“The scales have tipped so far to the left that you can barely do anything there, it’s so cost-prohibitive,” he said. “We’ve got to change the federal policy.”