Oh what hell the Bundy Ranch hath wrought.
A dispute between the Bureau of Land Management and gold miners in Southwestern Oregon drew immediate comparisons to the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch as word of the fresh conflict wound its way through the blogosphere this week.
Many of the ingredients were the same: a disagreement over property rights, a remote locale and a band of armed activists committed to protecting the land owner’s rights under the Constitution.
There’s one key difference, though. In interviews with TPM and local news outlets, the players involved in the mining dispute have been adamant about preventing the situation in Oregon from escalating the way the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada did. Despite their best intentions, the allure of an armed conflict with federal agents has still proved irresistible to self-styled militia members who flocked to the area from across the country to stir up trouble.
At issue is a disagreement over how to interpret records of the mines’ ownership, a spokesman for the BLM’s Medford district office told TPM in a phone interview.
Jim Whittington said it boils down to there being two different types of rights to the land: mining rights and surface rights. He said the two men involved in the dispute own the mining rights to the land, but not the surface rights. The BLM’s records, Whittington said, show that the surface rights at the Sugar Pine Mine were ceded to the agency in 1961 by the party that owned the claim at that time. He said the BLM in March served the Sugar Pine Mine with two letters saying as much.
Co-owners Rick Barclay and George Backes have argued, however, that they still possess the surface rights on the Sugar Pine Mine claim. Barclay said Thursday night on local television station KDRV that the BLM had served him with a “cease and desist letter” despite having showed him no proof that the agency retained the surface rights to his land.
“It’d be like somebody coming to your house saying ‘This is mine now. You got 14 days to take your house out and 30 days to take down your fences and everything you own,'” Barclay told the news station. “The average person’s going to say well, where’s your proof? I want my day in court before they destroy or force me to remove any of my property from my mine.”
Whittington said that the agency does not plan to take such drastic action.
“We’re not at all disputing that there’s a valid mining claim there,” he told TPM, adding that the dispute over who owns surface rights on the Sugar Pine Mine claim could be hashed out through what it likely to be a lengthy administrative appeal process.
Barclay, being suspicious of the federal agency, told KDRV that he’d enlisted the help of a local chapter of the Oath Keepers, a loose-knit national organization of current and former military and law enforcement officers who pledge to defend the Constitution against government overreach, to provide security on the property while he goes through the appeal process.
Mary Emerick, a spokeswoman for the Josephine County Oath Keepers, has been fielding phone calls from interested volunteers from all over the country. At least one activist was turned away from the property because he had outstanding issues with law enforcement, Emerick told TPM in a phone interview.
“I am aware that people are just literally getting in their cars,” she said. “However, we also know that some of those people are on sort of a list and are not going to be welcomed at the camp.”
“We are very careful about who we let in to this staging area,” Emerick added. “This is not some kind of field festival or a standoff with the BLM. We are just helping to protect rights.”
Emerick declined to reveal just how many activists were protecting the land, citing safety concerns. She did offer that there was round-the-clock security at the mine itself and that the activists were armed.
As for the people comparing her group’s effort to the Bundy Ranch standoff, Emerick said that was “pure speculation.”
Barclay, the Sugar Pine Mine co-owner, was so taken aback by the outsized response from activists that he told a local newspaper, The Mail Tribune, that the operation was becoming a “circus.”
“What you’re seeing is mostly a spectacle caused by social media and ‘keyboard commandos’ whooping it up,” he told the newspaper. “A lot of the stuff going around on social media is absolute bull—-.”
Barclay also issued a plea through the newspaper for his supporters to “stop calling the BLM and threatening their personnel.”
Whittington confirmed to TPM that agency employees have been receiving threats.
“There have been some questionable phone calls,” he said. “Our position on threats to employees is that we take it very seriously and that we’re going to investigate those credible threats.”
Whittington said that the BLM is aware of the situation at the Sugar Pine Mine. The agency instructed its employees not to enter that area and informed local law enforcement that it planned to stay away, he said.
Emerick said that her group did not want to escalate the mine owners’ dispute with the BLM, either.
“I think everybody’s pretty much in agreement that we’re not looking to start some kind of issue out there,” she told TPM. “We just would like to see the due process played out.”
Whether the local Oath Keepers can actually control activists who are attracted enough to the Sugar Pine Mine owners’ cause to just show up on their property is unclear. Oregon is a state that allows open carry of firearms, which could heighten the tension between the constitutional activists guarding the Sugar Pine Mine claim and any law enforcement or bureaucrats that dare to approach the property in the coming days.
“We have people at the driveway to the staging area. We did not ask them to arm themselves. They chose to do that,” Emerick said. “There are people getting interested who are on their own finding their way to an area they should not be in. Sometimes that’s a good deterrent as well.”
TPM illustration by Christine Frapech. Images via Shutterstock/Roman Bodnarchuk and salajean.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.