Coddling Insurrection

Militia types operating in Oregon cannot be allowed to go unpunished for laying siege to a national wildlife refuge. If let off the hook, what would that mean for other anti-federal government zealots contemplating illegally occupying national facilities to make their point?

Hence, the interlopers who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon to protest federal control of public lands cannot be permitted to linger. That is the case even though the intruders strongly imply they will resist with firearms if attempts are made to force them to leave before their demands are met. Bowing to the militia types' veiled threat of violence would encourage acts of anarchy elsewhere around the country.

The militia types at Malheur want local takeover of the large tracts of federally-owned land in the West. They complain that national authorities deny farmers, loggers, and ranchers sufficient commercial access to make a decent living.

The truth is that generous, low-cost commercial access is permitted on much of the federally owned public lands in the western United States.

But that is only the half the story as it applies to Malheur. Insurrection is at issue. The protesters want control of the federal land for their own use and that of their like-minded countrymen. Included in their demands are national wildlife refuges such as Malheur that were expressly set aside by the federal government primarily for conservation purposes. In Malheur's case some hunting is permitted, but President Teddy Roosevelt established the refuge in 1908, primarily because of its value as a unique habitat for migratory birds.

The leader of the would-be insurgents, Ammon Bundy, says his group simply wants to claim their constitutional right as private citizens to set the terms for commercial access to Malheur and other public lands that belong to the people. The problem is that Malheur and other public lands belong to all Americans, not just Bundy's hardy band of a dozen or so lawbreakers who call themselves "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom". These "citizens" have no right to block their fellow landowners from entry into mutually owned property.

As for constitutional rights, Bundy and company would get an "F" in any self-respecting constitutional law course. The Property and Federal Supremacy Clauses of the U.S. Constitution have been interpreted by the courts to vest the national government with undisputed authority to acquire, oversee, and retain control of federal lands. When in conflict, state interests and private parties take a back seat.

Although Bundy's lawbreakers are dabbling with sedition, their complaints should be heard by federal authorities. Perhaps some increased access can be negotiated that is not inconsistent with the management and purposes of federal lands and would ease the chance of any violent end to the Malheur siege.

But end the siege must, and none too soon, followed by the arrests of Bundy and his colleagues on a charge of at a minimum, criminal trespass. After all, both sides in the dispute have adamantly expressed their allegiance to the rule of law, so let it play out.