You might wonder what right-wing militias, anti-government, and hate groups have to do with the environment, but there is significant political overlap here in Montana. As it turns out there are several organizations here who are as likely to have an anti-immigration stance as an anti-conservation position. And in response, coalitions are forming between public land, wildlife conservation, and human rights groups.
Last March, a panel spoke on these issues here in Butte. The Montana Wilderness Association, in cooperation with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Human Rights Network presented "One Click Away from Hate: How Anti-Public Lands Extremists Are Worse Than You Think."
Panelists included Rachel Carroll Rivas and Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, along with Dave Chadwick of the Montana Wildlife Federation. They examined the history of the extremists targeting public lands and their connections to other right-wing movements, talked about the current threats, and discussed how community members can support each other when it comes to both conservation and human rights.
The history of dominionism, of white conservative Christians claiming a divine right to the land, is as old as the United States itself. It has been pervasive in the West going back to the belief in Manifest Destiny and it continues to creep into our politics even today.
The modern anti-public land movement traces its roots back to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 70s. This was a movement to transfer federal lands to state control, or to private owners for development.
Soon the extractive industries realized these movements goals aligned with their own and they started to funnel financial support into what was called the Wise Use Movement. Here’s Travis talking about the origins:
TM: “The wise Use Movement started in the 70’s…it’s gonna look and it’s gonna feel very grassroots.”
And that led to groups all over the West promoting the expansion of private property rights and a reduction of publicly held property. They are also an anti-environmentalist, claiming those who work the land know best how to manage it.
TM:”We’re going to go out
More recently a group popped up in Utah, the Americans Lands Counsel, that has pushed a public lands transfer movement. The funding of this group is somewhat mysterious, but it has been linked to The Koch brothers and other big rightwing donors.
These movements came to a head with the Bundy family and the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. After 20 years of illegal grazing, the BLM cracked down on the Bundy’s, prompting an armed standoff. Later, in 2016, the Bundy’s occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge for 41 days and destroyed public property in defiance. They were the embodiment of the wise use movement, and firmly believed in their rights to the land.
TM: “This idea of dominionism…because they have been grazing on those lands for decades and decades, and that gives them the rights to do whatever they want.”
There were other events along the way, there was a skirmish at a Mine in Oregon, and then the incident at the White Hope mine outside of Lincoln, Montana. Anti-conservation activists converged at the property of George Kornec, ostensibly to protect him from Forest Service harassment. George had been mining without an approved plan, prompting federal and state agencies to stop the operation. George called on the Oath Keepers and III%s, armed groups whom had assisted the Bundy’s, to come and help. The standoff fizzled, and a judge later ruled the Forrest Service was right to shut the mine down.
After the Malheur standoff, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of conspiracy charges, and they have become something of celebrities.
TM: ”Why should we be concerned about the Bundy’s? That’s how we take the country back.”
“Three times during 2018…spoke to at least 100 people.”
Part of Travis’s job as researcher at the Human Rights Network is to attend these conferences and keep an eye on what these groups are up to.
TM: “What makes the Human Rights network different…the issues right now.”
He attended one last year where Ammon spoke in Sanders county:
“This conference was an interesting case….The anti-Indian movement…making sure that they are Americans first.”
And this is where these activists are seeing significant overlap between anti-conservation, anti-public land, and hate groups. Groups like ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim group in the country, is also actively opposing the American Prairie reserve and Native water rights. ACT has chapters in Whitehall and the Flathead, and they are recognized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
And many of these extreme views are finding their way into our state politics. Here’s Dave Chadwick:
DC: “In it’s current incarnation…it’s an ideological agenda that wants to keep people off of our public lands.”
What started as local groups like Montanan’s for Multiple Use and Citizen’s for Balanced Use, have produced GOP legislators like Jenifer Fielder and Kerry White, who pushed a public land transfer agenda as well as anti-tribal sovereignty.
Both Dave and Rachael were quick to point out there are plenty of legitimate discussions to be had in the spheres of land use, and that these are often contentious issues dividing the right and left. But the extreme views they were bringing to light are outside of the norm.
RCR: “The ideas that we’re talking about here…”
But with the current administration stripping public land protections and pushing a xenophobic agenda, the threats are mounting, and extremist groups are emboldened. And that’s why these panelists are out speaking about the power of coalitions between conservation and human rights groups, especially on the front lines of rural America.
TM: “The Bundy’s are looking for their next event….What are those messages that unite all of us.”
I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF