Radical Groups Affect Public Lands and Human Rights

Presenters (L to R), Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation, Rachel Carroll Rivas & Travis McAdam, Montana Human Rights Network.

Militia, Sagebrush Rebellion, Cliven Bundy, Malheur Refuge, and other names, terms and places have been in the news over the last few decades, in one way or another, in many western states.

We were living in North Dakota, when Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer and itinerant oilfield worker, got his 15 minutes of fame. In the 1960s, he declared that he would no longer pay income taxes to the “Synagogue of Satan under the 2nd plank of the Communist Manifesto.” He later served prison time for willful failure to file tax returns. After parole from prison he became active in other radical movements, similar to the Montana Freemen of the 1990s. In January 1983, U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest Kahl for parole violations. At a rural roadblock, Kahl and his son, Yorie, started a firefight in which two marshals were killed and several local police officers were wounded. Kahl’s story ended several months later in Arkansas, when he was killed in another firefight.

While the violent shootout in North Dakota was, seemingly, a long time ago, Gordon Kahl had a lot in common with Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay grazing fees for running cattle on public lands.

These movements, whether called Militia, Freeemen, Oathkeepers, or other terms that emerge, have a lot of similarities and connections, and were the topic of a presentation on March 13 at a meeting presented by the Southwest Wildlands chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association, in cooperation with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Human Rights Network.

Presenters at the meeting were Dave Chadwick, Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Rachel Carroll Rivas, and Travis McAdam, both representing the Montana Human Rights Network.

While it might, at first, seem a stretch, but the Montana Human Rights Network, first formed in reaction to the emergence of white supremacy groups such as Militia and Freemen, finds a lot of common interest with public lands advocates, with Carroll Rivas asserting, “Public lands connect to public rights.”

Conversely, common threads among the radical movements include things such as anti-Semitism, anti-American Indian, and anti-federal government. They often assert that county sheriffs are the ranking law enforcement officer, with powers that put them above federal law enforcement officers. Public lands are another common interest among these groups, whether they advocate for local management of federal public lands, or claim sovereignty, such as Cliven Bundy.

We definitely have people in Montana who affiliate with these groups. Carroll Rivas suggests, “They’re not all kooks, but they do have a different worldview that we need to understand in order to counter it.”

A leader in an organization that’s part of the movement to transfer public lands is Jennifer Fielder, CEO of the American Lands Council (ALC). She’s also a state senator (R-Thompson Falls), and as head of the ALC, succeeded Ken Ivory, a Utah legislator.

Another legislator involved with these groups is Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), who is a vocal supporter of the Bundys.

An indication of activity among these groups is that on three occasions in 2018, members of the Bundy family, including Cliven, were in Montana to spread their anti-government message.

McAdam attended some events like those featuring the Bundys, describing them as resembling old-fashioned revival meetings, with one meeting going for a full 11 ½ hours. He had the impression that a lot of the followers come from a fundamentalist tradition and are used to lengthy events.

Is there a positive message in all this?

Chadwick of the Wildlife Federation says that public involvement in human rights and public lands issues is the key. “Radicals lose when they go into the public forum.” He notes that in previous legislative sessions there were up to 15 bills introduced to change management of public lands. “There are no bills in this year’s session. They know they can’t win in a democratic fight.”

He continued, “We’ve been in this for decades. We need to keep engaging people in legitimate debate, including at the local level. The democratic process works.”

For more information, check mhrn.org.

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