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Storm Over Rangelands: Boise Land Seizure Conference and the Spectacle of Lawlessness at Malheur

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Ammon Bundy had planned to appear at Utah Freedom’s “Storm Over Rangelands” Conference in Boise on Saturday. Storm Over Rangelands is the title of Sagebrush Rebel Wayne Hage’s 1990s book.

I was present at the surreal ceremony honoring Adrian Sewell, a rancher from New Mexico who “renounced” his grazing permit at Malheur, three days before the Bundy arrest. Lavoy Finicum stated at the ceremony that ranchers would be protected if they had trouble with the Feds – implying militia intimidation.

It was also announced that an Oregon rancher was to similarly renounce his permit in Jordan Valley, Oregon (on the Idaho line) on Friday, which was a day before the Boise conference. Instead of a triumphant gallop through Jordan Valley and taking Boise by storm, Bundy’s free roaming days ended on the road to John Day just a few days before. He was arrested heading to instigate trouble in Grant County, and LaVoy Finicum was killed.

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Permit-renouncing New Mexico rancher Adrian Sewell, an ax-wielding ex-convict, in “vigilante” jacket at Malheur.

News sources have reported that the Boise Storm conference leader Todd MacFarlane, is linked to the Bundy clan and Finicum, and to ALC. A Cedar City Storm Conference was a “warm up” for the Boise event.

This includes several of Chris Zinda’s excellent articles on the Land Seizure movement.

The Boise outdoor community has been outraged at events at Malheur. Idaho residents know the Refuge, and appreciate it as a place of peace and tranquility, with trees at the Refuge headquarters alive with birds in spring migration, and skies full of sandhill cranes and other birds in fall. So the “Storm” Conference was met with a Protest, with citizens pushing back against the Land Grab. Approximately 150 people marched from the Idaho Capitol steps to the Grove, through downtown Boise, chanting support for public lands.

At one point during the Protest, a large bellowing man tried to stir up trouble. The bellower was later spotted inside the Storm conference. Protestors significantly outnumbered the Conference-goers

Storm Conference

The large conference room in the Grove, easily seating 500 people or more, held a scant 60 people.

Conference leader Utah Attorney Todd MacFarlane, had visited the seized Refuge, along with 7 or 8 Utah ranchers, and also is reported to helped the Militants work on media. Rancher Jo(h)n Pratt, also billed at the Storm conference, had been with the Militants at Malheur early on in the siege.

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MacFarlane in the conference auditorium.

A colleague attended part of a morning session – but left because of what they described as “dark energy” in the room. And this was a person who had attended many Idaho Legislature hearings on a broad range of wretched bills. I attended much of the afternoon session, trying to understand the leaps of logic the Land Seizure folks engage in. There were glowering security people in the conference, and during breaks.

Here’s what MacFarlane had said about Malheur when he went there early in the armed Militant seizure to help put a positive media spin on what had gone down:

MacFarlane says the big message out of Oregon is that it’s not an armed standoff with the feds, but more of an occupation of federal lands. “That’s not what I observed,” said MacFarlane. “I didn’t observe any standoff, there’s a very open atmosphere out there at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge”. Macfarlane said his talks with the Bundys did include an exit strategy. He said this is really just one specific incident of public lands occupation that the Bundys have gotten involved in.”

Boise Storm Afternoon Session speakers were:

Rancher Tim Smith from Burns, Oregon, a founding member of the militia/posse comitatus “Committee of Safety” group from Burns, Oregon; rancher Cliff Gardner from Ruby Valley, Nevada; rancher Dr. Angus McIntosh (adjunct at Texas A&M). This was followed by a panel discussion, with panelists Rice, Gardner, McIntosh and MacFarlane. Jon Pratt had written questions from the audience they responded to.

Tim Smith Presentation

Tim Smith, a founding member of the Harney County Committee of Safety presented a series of charts showing how much the Federal government was losing on grazing and logging, based on Heritage Foundation figures. His magical solution was to turn over to the state and then it became clear the county. Then this would all be turned around.

The Harney County Committee of Safety, co-founded by Ammon Bundy, arose out of thin air in the period surrounding the Bundy seizure of Malheur. This was the period when out of state Idaho 3% militia and other armed militia elements, and the Bundy inner circle, were stalking around Burns intimidating local people and officials. They were trying to get Sheriff Dave Ward to prevent the Feds from taking the Hammonds to jail – because the County sheriff is the only law they really recognize.

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The Committee of Safety’s interests and purpose are shown in the slide above – including “repealing laws”, “other patriot groups”, “Owyhee Canyonlands”. He stated a need to replace leaders.

Smith made it clear he favors county control of public land and getting rid of the federal agencies in Harney County. Somehow the folks employed by the federal agencies were to magically transition to private sector jobs in Burns. His view was that once lands are grabbed from the public, boom times of an earlier era will fall upon the County.

Cliff Gardner

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Cliff Gardner, rancher from Ruby Valley Nevada, spoke of Sagebrush Rebellion 1 of which he was a veteran). This implies we may now be in Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0 (digital era version). Gardner spun through a history of 1800s land acquisitions. He segued into various laws that he believed led to federal overreach, where liberty and freedom took a turn for the worse. He swept through American history high and low points – from the “Founding Fathers”, through the Civil War era, laws that persecuted the LDS people, War Power, the interstate Highway system and the Frank Church Report. All of this, except the Founding Fathers and some information in the Church report, were examples of federal overreach. It all started going south sometime after the Lousiana Purchase.

Carpenter launched into a confusing discussion of Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution. Article 3 deals with the jurisdiction of federal courts, and Article 4 with the authority of the federal government to regulate and dispose of lands. Gardner ignores the “regulate” part, and is stuck in a frontier-era mindset of disposal. He referred to a lawsuit he had brought in NV and seemed to say the Judge could never tell him which article his authority came.

Interestingly, the first charges brought against Ammon Bundy and his inner circle of Militants are under a under Civil War era law.

“The Confederacy began seizing federal buildings as states seceded, Blair said. States and armed groups took over federal courthouses, naval yards, forts, customs houses and post offices” … “Bundy and that crowd are sort of latter-day secessionists,” he said, because they’ve demanded federal land be handed over to local control.

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After which it all started going wrong …

Dr. Angus McIntosh

McIntosh is a manifest destiny man to the max. He gave a marathon talk on old laws that enabled exploitation and domination of the land during the frontier and early settlement era. I sensed he was filibustering, as he repeated much the same thing over again – and as the conference ran behind schedule.

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The slide on “range rights” showed a weedy beat out landscape.

He showed endless slides with bullets about old land laws, and gave his interpretation of how this gave ranchers who put the land “to beneficial use” a right. “Beneficial use” was used not just for water rights – but for cows eating grass, cutting trees, building roads, etc. An earlier speaker had referenced John Locke, mixing labor and sweat on the land.

A few times, his quasi-academic air slipped, and a virulent anti-environmental remark of one sort or another escaped – perhaps to keep the audience nodding their heads.

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This slide illustrates what McIntosh and the Land Seizure folks believe is the crux of the matter. Turning a cow out on land to eat grass, trailing cows, having a water development, having a road, cutting down a tree, anything a rancher does on the land, gives him a kind of possession of the land. A “right” has been established. They refer to it as “split estate” – it seems because there is some recognition that the federal government may have control over sub-surface materials. But not the land surface.

In the center of the slide is a little piece of private or “base” property. All the rest is BLM land. In the view of the Storm folks – any land that has cows, cow trails, water developments, fences or roads (as illustrated with the various symbols and lines on the slide) is no longer public land. The rancher has established a right and taken possession.
This means that the federal government cannot control the rancher’s use of these lands.

The federal government only obtains a kind of control if a rancher signs a grazing permit. It is the permit that gives the government control. This is where the Bundy Militant obsession with renouncing grazing permits comes from – breaking the grazing permit yoke of federal tyranny over the rancher.

This preaching was at the core of the never-ending Wayne Hage litigation in Nevada. Not once throughout this presentation did McIntosh mention that the Hage claims had recently been shot down in flames by a panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Hage case would have been over years ago, if it had not been in front of a hostile Judge.

At the break between this session and the Panel discussion, I heard someone ask McIntosh about the Hage case. So then in the Panel session, McIntosh finally did mention the court loss – which means the collapse of his rancher rights legal theories. He rambled a bit, and basically said the equivalent of “we can’t get justice in the federal courts”.

At one point, he had said he thought Indians should be able to sell their allotments on Reservations (which one could see might lead to gutting a reservation through sale). I got the sense he thought the Taylor Grazing Act was overreach.

Time after time the audience was told the land is not public land. Public land went away the first time someone turned out a cow, cut down a tree, or put in any kind of development. Listening to this worshipful land domination spin, I kept thinking of miners clawing against one another, cowmen shooting sheepmen, homestead fraud, and consummate brutality to the original Native American inhabitants, the land, and wildlife.

Part way through, a very elderly Bert Smith and his wife came in. McIntosh recognized them as funders of the event. It would be interesting to know how deep ties are to the Bundy clan.

“Storm” Panel Question Discussion

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Utah Rancher John Pratt read off written questions from the audience, and the Panel responded. Pratt had been at Malheur and is listed in media with some early Militants.

A question was asked about Malheur. What have you learned/what was the result? Tim Smith said: The good part is that more people are now informed, but what went wrong was that the town didn’t “take the ball and run”. “Take the ball and run” would appear to mean rise up in support of the Bundy Militants Seizure.

Discussion touched on LaVoy Finicum. MacFarlane (now reported as the lawyer for the Finicum family) and others complained about Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s pleas that the lawless situation be dealt with. MacFarlane and crew were careful not to talk about Malheur too long or go too deeply into it.

Will grazing fees go up (once land is taken over by the states/counties)? The audience was assured this would not happen, and that folks in Humboldt County Nevada who were concerned fees would rise were not correct – and in fact maybe there could end up being some reductions (to the near-free fees).

What happens to the federal employees once lands are wrested from the Feds? The private sector was to somehow absorb them. Primarily Smith and Carpenter made it clear that especially environmental jobs would go away. A question was asked if federal biologists would be hired by ranchers – specifically like the Roaring Springs Ranch (wealthy absentee owner) operation’s sage-grouse biologist. There was railing about too many government employees. There was mumbling about putting some to work in the woods. Never a discouraging word was spoken about negative fallout from the paradise on earth that will arise when lands are wrested from the Feds.

What was the Scriptural basis for what had been discussed by the speakers? I can’t remember if it was in response to this question, or in his talk, where Cliff Gardner lapsed into a discussion of the Magna Carta, when the Lords needed some rights from their King, and then referenced the Bible. There were obscure Biblical references in response to the question by Pratt and panelists.

In reply to a question about fire, the discussion turned to oblique references to suing the Feds about backfires/fires. Note that there has recently been considerable rancher grumbling about agency fire fighting – Idaho’s 2015 Tipi fire where BLM crews were confronted by armed ranchers, a Finicum website post haranguing the Feds for drawing water from a spring on his allotment for a fire, etc., and of course the Hammond arson incident.

Do BLM employees swear oaths? It was unclear if anyone knew.

There was a discussion of the Hammonds and possible efforts to free them, and an old timber law that allowed rancher burning that the Hammonds lawyer had not even known about.

Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl was in attendance. He spoke about Nevada Rep. Amodei’s Land Transfer Bill that has been introduced in Congress.

There was discussion (and I did not quite catch what was said) of Kris Anne Hall’s talk the past week in Burns. Hall is a posse comitatus lawyer from Florida who had been imported to Burns to sway local folks to the anti-government cause. The Bundy Militants also drew in a self-appointed Judge, who spoke at the grazing permit revocation ceremony. Joaquin Mariano DeMoreto-Folch said he planned to convene a grand jury to prosecute local officials who opposed them. He opined that no Judge in the land could overturn him or any finding of his “grand jury”.  This reports Folch’s fascination, similar to the Storm speakers, with the Magna Carta era and the Constitution. Back to the Middle Ages!

There was a question about the EPA, environmental laws, etc. that resulted in predictable complaints. One person that the panel knew raised his hand and tried to ask a question, but was told to ask in the last session. There were some scattered references to “communism” sprinkled in the meeting.

The Secret Last Session

MacFarlane read off a list of people’s names that could attend the final session. I had been asked to sign a list when I came in, and had checked boxes for what I was interested in – grazing, mining, logging, other. When he realized a name he read was mine, he said “I need to talk to you”. The sparse Boise conference had a sparser list of names blessed to attend the secret session. I recognized two rancher names – one with the same last name as an Idaho state Senator.

MacFarlane then asked me to come outside the room so he could talk to me. I said I preferred to talk to him in the room (in front of people). He said I was not invited to the last session. At the Cedar City Storm event the week before, a transparency group was not allowed into the last session, and the Storm folks were upset with activist Chris Zinda. It was reported after that conference that 8 ranchers had renounced their permits – but their names were not revealed. No word has emerged from the secret Storm session on permits that may have been renounced in Boise.

Storm Troops at Malheur

Consider the Bundy Militant spectacle of lawlessness at Malheur through the lens of the Land Seizure Storm conference.

The Bundy barbarians were not only conducting a very public display of scorn for public lands environmental protection laws, the Refuge land itself, and Native American beliefs. They were also taking possession, perfecting “rights”.

They put on a media show of Finicum and gloveless Ammon Bundy removing a barbed wire fence so cows could graze in the Refuge – creating a “right” through work (a la John Locke). Grazing was to follow in the spring) on Refuge lands. They bulldozed roads, and a road “right” right-of-way was created.

They filmed a deeply disturbing video of LaVoy Finicum pawing through Native American artifacts – a symbolic act of conquest, and domination of one culture and belief system over another.

MacFarlane is reported as assisting the Malheur Militants with media image when he traveled to the seized facility. Ammon Bundy stated in an RT Video Interview that he had deep pockets behind him. Media reports have not yet dug into expose those deep pockets. It’s long past time to do so!

Utah’s Freedom Conference “sponsors” include American Lands Council (linked to Koch Brothers), the Smiths foundation, and others.

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Protestors at the Refuge, opposing the armed Militant Seizure.

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