Militias and Public Lands: A Utah Story 

How two right-wing movements became inseparably joined in Bountiful, Utah

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The Utah Connection

Throughout the recent armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building at an eastern Oregon federal bird-refuge, two ideological forces seem increasingly intertwined: the public-lands-takeover movement and the patriot (aka militia) movement. These two crusades evolved independently over time, but some see them as having been "married" two decades ago in Bountiful, Utah.

Ostensibly, the occupation was prompted by the jailing of the Hammonds, father and son Oregon ranchers who had attempted a controlled burn on public land. However, despite what many mainstream media outlets reported, the occupiers of the building are not Oregon ranchers or miners holding legitimate grievances with the federal government. Rather, locals in Burns, Ore., reportedly say the militiamen—including Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy who caused a national incident in 2014 when he staged an armed standoff with federal officers after refusing to pay to graze his cattle on public lands—are primarily from out-of-state organizations demanding federal public lands be turned over to state and municipal governments.

Despite the broad media coverage, it's difficult to determine who and how many individuals are inside the buildings. However, there are reports that members of several patriot-movement groups—Oath Keepers (and its sister organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA), and the Three Percenters—assisted in organizing the armed march that preceded the occupation. And, according to Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates and independent writer/researcher who's been on the ground in Oregon tracking the buildup of militia activity, it was the Three Percenters that organized the heavily armed convoy that on Jan. 9 surrounded the refuge buildings and claimed to be a buffer between the militiamen inside and law enforcement.

While locals reportedly were upset with the Hammonds' jail sentence, at a packed Jan. 6 town-hall meeting, residents overwhelmingly voted to demand that the militiamen leave immediately. This was repeated on Jan. 11 when, at another town-hall meeting, local residents booed and jeered militiamen until they left the room, as seen in an online video.

It was the patriot/militiamen's LDS faith and familiar "take back our lands" messaging that tied the situation back to Utah. The Bundys invoked their Mormon faith—with Cliven Bundy telling a group of supporters "The Lord told me ... if (the sheriff doesn't) take away these arms (from federal agents), we the people will have to face these arms in a civil war. He said, 'This is your chance to straighten this thing up,'" As a result, the LDS Church issued a statement condemning the actions, saying "this armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis."

Likewise, state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who heads the Utah-based public-lands-takeover advocacy group American Lands Council (ALC), also tweeted his concerns, saying that armed takeovers are not the way to privatize public lands. But despite Ivory's distancing himself from the Oregon armed occupation, the historical Utah connection between the public-lands-takeover movement and Far Right paramilitary organizations is hard to ignore.

Rep. Ivory's controversial 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act was only the latest attempt by Utah politicians to forcibly turn over public lands to local control for resource extraction and private development. Back in the early '90s, the Utah Legislature was one of several to pass laws attempting unique and legally questionable tactics to stymie environmental regulations. It was known as the "Wise Use" movement, and was founded by former Dow Chemical consultant Ron Arnold in 1984. In the organization's published paper "The Wise Use Agenda," the movement's founders laid out a series of goals that could be described as a wish list for resource-extraction industries, including opening all federal lands to logging, mining and off-road vehicle access.

The '90s rhetoric of the Wise Use movement corresponds with the language of Rep. Ivory's early websites from 2012, where he listed as a goal of his fledgling movement to obtain rights to the "subsurface mineral estate" of national parks. But, over the past three years, the ALC's language has shifted, and it now drapes itself in environmental-protection language. It claims that public lands can only be cared for by the states and that the health of the land can only be protected by resource-extraction companies.

The multifaceted Wise Use movement established in the '90s what was known as its "county supremacy arm," or a branch of the movement that believed county governments, and particularly the county sheriffs, had supremacy over federal laws and law enforcement. What may surprise many Utahns is that the county supremacy arm was coordinated through the Bountiful, Utah-based National Federal Lands Conference (NFLC). In his book The War Against the Greens, author David Helvarg explains that with the Wise Use movement's founder Ron Arnold serving on the advisory board of the NFLC, the Utah organization claimed that county sheriffs were the ultimate legal authority, possessing the power to arrest federal agents who "fail to respect the customs and culture of logging, mining and grazing on public lands." PRA fellow Spencer Sunshine describes the '90s militia movement's membership as made up of conspiracy theorists, anti-abortion and Christian Right activists, right-wing libertarians, gun-rights activists and a minority of white supremacists. The NFLC quickly became a boiling pot for militia and even vigilante activity.

The NFLC was extremely vocal in its support of local armed militia groups, and, in so doing, reportedly caused no small headache for the LDS Church. In one of the NFLC's newsletters, dated October 1994, the NFLC produced an article titled "Why There Is a Need for the Militia in America," claiming that militias were constitutionally empowered to "enforce punishment" against federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms; the Environment Protection Agency; and the U.S. Forest Service.

The rhetoric fomenting in northern Utah reached such a level that LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave a speech in 1994 warning that LDS militia members' "excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw ... from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our 12th Article of Faith makes us all subject." Oaks doubled down on these statements again in 2012, when he expressed concern about "right-wing groups who mistakenly apply prophecies about the last days to promote efforts to form paramilitary or other organizations."

The '90s militia movement largely disappeared with the election of George W. Bush and the events surrounding 9/11, says Sunshine. Writing for The Progressive Media Project's Progressive magazine, Sunshine notes that the new patriot movement exploded after the election of President Obama.

In comparing websites, it's easy to see that many of the patriot-movement talking points are similar to those espoused by groups like the American Lands Council. In August 2015, City Weekly reported that a speech given by Rep. Ken Ivory to the patriot group Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association was filmed and used as a CSPOA promotional video. Ivory also signed a county supremacy-style resolution for the group under his official title as a Utah legislator saying that the "arrest of citizens or seizure of persons or property without first notifying and obtaining the express consent of the local sheriff" will not be tolerated.

While leaders of the current federal lands takeover movement may try to distance themselves from ties to the patriot movement, the overlap in ideology and membership are obvious. Ivory has strongly denied any connection to paramilitary organizations (in the City Weekly article, he likened his speaking at their events to giving an interview to NPR), but a number of county leaders in Utah, Nevada and other states who have who signed on as ALC dues-paying members are also members of the Oath Keepers, CSPOA or other paramilitary groups like the Three Percenters. On the Oath Keepers of Oregon homepage, there is a link to the American Lands Council alongside other Oath Keeper organizations.

Considering the strong anti-government stances of both groups, you have a recipe for ongoing armed occupations or standoffs based on the rhetoric of the public-lands-takeover movement. CW

In addition to writing news for City Weekly, Eric Ethington is communications director for Political Research Associates, an organization that studies the U.S. political right wing, including paramilitary organizations.

This story was updated online Jan. 19, 2016.

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