Jerry Kresge, a cattle rancher in the remote northeast corner of California, doesn’t necessarily agree with the tactics of the armed activists who have seized a federal office building in Burns, Ore.
But he shares their frustration.
Like the activists in Oregon, Kresge says the federal government’s grip on vast stretches of land in the West has become a stranglehold. Kresge, 56, is even thinking of driving to Burns, about 200 miles from his Modoc County ranching operation, as a show of solidarity – not so much with the activists occupying the building, but with the two imprisoned ranchers whose criminal case sparked the Jan. 2 takeover.
“I am getting fed up,” he said, “just about to my eyebrows.”
Kresge is like many others in rural California who contend they are being smothered by the federal government and its land-management practices. He watched the federal government close forests to logging in the 1990s to protect endangered spotted owls, crippling the Modoc County economy. More recently, he said, the feds have allowed Modoc’s forests to grow out of control, leading to destructive wildfires. Kresge’s cattle compete for grass against herds of feral horses that he says federal officials will not relocate.
Federal agencies own 73 percent of the land in Modoc County, and Kresge said that makes it hard for the county’s 9,400 residents to earn a decent living.
“We either have to quit and go do something else, or we need to fight it,” he said. “I think most folks I know are to the point where they’ll fight.”
Though California’s huge urban population centers drive its politics and its national reputation as a liberal state, there’s another side. In rural areas, public sentiment is often not all that different from the other Western states that birthed the conflict behind the Burns occupation.
Nearly half the land in California is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or other federal agencies, with the highest concentrations in its far northern and eastern reaches. The federal government owns about 96 percent of Alpine County and 88 percent of Trinity.
Federal control over much of the West dates to the 19th century. As America expanded westward, the federal government acquired hundreds of millions of acres of land. Although Congress handed over much of it to homesteaders and other settlers, it held back enormous swaths as the conservation movement took hold in the late 1800s. Today the federal government owns 640 million acres overall, much of it in the West. It owns 85 percent of Nevada, more than any other state.
In portions of these rural regions, residents live an uneasy coexistence with the government. Federal ownership of so much land sets up almost inevitable conflict: With comparatively little private land available, ranchers, loggers and others routinely have to negotiate deals with the federal government to work the land just outside their windows.
For its part, Washington says it has to strike a balance between commercial interests, recreation and environmental protection of some of the country’s most treasured landscape. Unable to please everyone, land agencies often are sued by competing factions over land stewardship decisions.
To many in these far-flung counties, federal land ownership has come to symbolize overreaching government control. The resentment manifests itself in different ways. One example readily visible in rural Northern California is the State of Jefferson movement, whose roadside banners publicize its efforts to carve a 51st state from nearly two dozen conservative counties in the northern part of the state and southern Oregon.
“How can a county exist when it doesn’t have control of its own land?” said Mark Baird, a Siskiyou County radio station owner and a leader in the movement. “It’s sapping the economy of a lot of the Western states.”
Baird, speaking at a rally on the Capitol steps in Sacramento last week, made it clear he doesn’t support the takeover of the federal building in Oregon. But he and other Jefferson activists understand where the Oregon occupiers are coming from.
“I like the fact that they’re taking a stand,” said Mark Banks, a construction contractor from Tuolumne County who attended the rally wearing a Jefferson Militia cap. “I don’t think an armed resistance is necessarily the way to go.”
Federal lands are by no means off-limits to business. The agencies open up millions of acres for livestock grazing, logging, oil and natural gas production, and other commercial activities. Critics in the environmental community say it amounts to exploitation of a public resource for private profit. They say the fees ranchers pay to graze are so low it amounts to a federal subsidy.
Ranchers counter that rangeland leases come with so much red tape and indirect costs that they are hardly a free ride.
Either way, rural residents are bristling against a perceived loss of control. They seethe in frustration as summer wildfires burn timber that once might have given loggers and mill workers jobs. When federal officials close dusty forest roads to protect sensitive landscapes, the locals see barriers blocking access to huge stretches of county land. Ranchers resent the sanctions they face if they do not pull their cattle off the range by the day their permits expire, even if an early snowstorm slows a roundup.
John Martin, a retired Bureau of Land Management economist who lectures at Boise State University in Idaho, said the frustration goes beyond mere economic concerns.
“You have that attitude, the Western attitude, of ‘leave me alone,’ ” Martin said.
Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is the latest in a series of skirmishes that have flared since the 1970s. That’s when Congress passed protections for endangered species and a law declaring that federal lands would remain under federal control.
The law helped give rise to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, an ongoing feud led by Western ranchers and mining interests seeking to reassert local control. Four years ago, for instance, the Utah Legislature passed a law calling on the federal government to turn over more than 20 million acres to the state. And in recent years, some congressional Republicans have sponsored legislation that would transfer land back to the states and local authorities.
Herzik said these efforts are rooted in legitimate concerns about local control. But he said the proponents are fighting a lost cause.
“They’re not going to get the control back,” he said. “While I’m sympathetic to local control, these are federal lands. They’re owned by all the people of the United States. So to say, ‘This is our land because we live next to it,’ well, no. It’s not.”
What’s more, he said, the local-control movement has been co-opted by attention-seeking radicals in Oregon and elsewhere.
“That detracts from the issues of local control vs. federal control that really is at the base here,” he said. “It hurts the legitimate ranchers who are trying to work through these issues with, in a sense, a much stronger partner on the other side of the table: the federal government.”
Environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts oppose the notion of locals gaining control over federal lands. As they see it, ranchers, loggers and oil companies would run roughshod over some of the most pristine, rugged lands in America if given the opportunity.
“They want to take America’s natural heritage and turn it over to the states to privatize them,” said Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz.
She said the current rules don’t do enough to keep public wildlands from being exploited. Instead of being safeguarded for environmental purposes, far too much land is open to fossil fuel extraction and millions of acres are open to grazing, she said.
“Does that sound restrictive?” she said. “I think not.”
Up until the Burns incident, the most recent headline-grabbing encounter between ranchers and federal agents came in 2014, when officers came to Cliven Bundy’s southern Nevada ranch to collect cattle as payment for the more than $1 million his family owed in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy says he does not recognize the federal government’s claim to the land. Federal officials eventually backed off after a prolonged standoff with armed activists. Bundy still hasn’t paid.
Bundy’s sons, calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, took over the empty Burns refuge building with a group of armed supporters. Their group was originally part of a demonstration on behalf of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.
The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of setting two illegal fires on federal rangeland they leased. Prosecutors said they set one of the blazes after illegally killing at least seven deer, and both fires posed a threat to human safety. Even so, a federal judge said it would “shock the conscience” to sentence the ranchers to years in federal prison. Instead, he sentenced them to well below the five-year minimum required under federal law. The elder Hammond served three months. His son served a year.
After prosecutors appealed, the Hammonds were resentenced last October to five-year terms and reported last week to a federal prison in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles.
The ranchers’ case received broad support among Western livestock producers and agricultural activists frustrated with what they saw as another example of heavy-handed oversight of federal lands. The Hammonds argued they set one fire to burn off invasive plant species and the other to buffer grazing land against approaching wildfires.
To their supporters in rural California, the Hammonds were doing the kinds of necessary rangeland management that federal managers are often reluctant to do. The Hammond sympathizers also said the punishment did not seem to fit the crime. The men burned fewer than 200 acres, with no injuries or other property damage. Supporters were appalled that the mandatory minimum sentences imposed fell under a federal anti-terrorism law because the crime involved arson on federal property. These men, their supporters say, are no terrorists.
Some California ranchers say the occupiers’ militant tactics are not productive, no matter how legitimate their frustrations may be.
“I was really disappointed to see them them go to Burns, Ore., because it changed the story from the Hammond family and the total breakdown of justice there to a radical, a far-right radical, militia-based idea,” said Ned Coe, a Modoc County cattle rancher and field representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “I was really upset to see that occur, because I felt there was some real opportunity for inroads to be made to the general public.”
Coe said Modoc County, like many rural counties in the West, is chronically impoverished in large part because so much of the federal land is off limits to the local economy. A big culprit, he said, is the spotted owl controversy.
Revenue from timber sales used to to support schools and other essential services in Modoc County. When efforts to protect the spotted owl led to drastic reductions in logging in the 1990s, Congress appropriated funds to offset the lost revenue. But Coe said some years there is not enough money to run the county snowplows.
His fellow Modoc rancher, Kresge, said federal restrictions might make it impossible for his family to continue ranching as it has for six generations. It’s a worry shared by his 35-year-old daughter, Amy Foster, who’s also thinking of heading up to Oregon to support the Hammonds.
They discussed the prospect over lunch last week, he said, including the risk of getting caught in the crossfire if the occupation turned violent.
“She said, ‘Here’s the dilemma. If I go up and heaven forbid there’s bloodshed, and I don’t come home, my husband will still be here to raise my child,’ ” Kresge recounted. “ ‘If I don’t go and we continue to let the federal government run over the top of us, there’s not going to be anything for him anyway.’ ”
They’re still mulling their options.
McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Michael Doyle contributed to this story.
Counties with the most federal land
Percent of land controlled
San Luis Obispo
Figures are approximate
Source: Bee analysis of data from Esri and U.S. Geological Survey