The decision by a group of activists to seize a small, remote federal building in a corner of Oregon has roots that burrow into a lot of political and social threads. There are gun rights issues, religious overtones, broad strains of anti-government sentiment and even the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
But there's also the very particular question of how much land the government controls in the state -- the same question that animated the dispute with rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada two years ago -- and that helped motivate Bundy's son Ammon to take a lead role in the Oregon standoff.
As we noted Sunday, the Oregon dispute began with the government's push to ensure that Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who were convicted of arson in 2012, served the minimum sentences that their convictions mandated. (Both already have served time, but less than the five-year minimum.) The Hammonds set a fire in 2001 that spread out of control on federal land. The government argued that the two were trying to cover up an illegal deer hunt.
More than half of Oregon is owned by the federal government, with a large percentage of that land owned by the Bureau of Land Management -- an agency widely reviled in the West and known by its acronym, BLM. (Ammon Bundy was forced to clarify on Twitter that his use of "BLM" didn't refer to the Black Lives Matter movement.) Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the amount of federal land in the state.
(This map and the ones below only show areas of 600 or more acres held by the government.)
The takeover occurred near Malheur Lake, at a building that's part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That lake is at the upper center of the BLM's map of the surrounding area, which shows just how much is controlled by the government. (The original protests over the Hammonds' sentencing began in Burns, Ore.)
Part of the issue is that there isn't much population in the eastern part of the state. Mapping Oregon's population, you can see Portland and a corridor near the coast, which is about it. The area around the wildlife refuge has almost no population.
There's a historic link between population and federal land ownership. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service looked at the history of tensions between the government and the population out West -- particularly ranchers and farmers who, like the Hammonds and Bundys, use federal land for grazing and other purposes.
Early in the history of the country, the government took over land that was then distributed to citizens for farming and economic growth. As the United States expanded westward, the land was increasingly inhospitable, including the Rockies and the deserts of Nevada and Utah. By the end of the 19th century, a new focus was placed on conserving the land, with Yellowstone becoming the first national park in 1872. At that point, very few people lived in the area, as this 1890 Census Bureau map suggests.
Over the course of the 20th century, the government's emphasis shifted away from releasing the land to private citizens and toward managing it itself. The passage of 1976's Federal Land Policy and Management Act made that policy concrete, keeping the land as the property of the government. After the federal government's shift, there was a push from some in the West, including governors and members of Congress, to shift control from the federal to the state or local government. The Sagebrush Rebellion, as it was known, tapered off during the relative friendly administration of Ronald Reagan.
The longstanding political and legal dispute was summarized in more depth by the conservative Heritage Foundation, but the Congressional Research Service makes one additional point that's important to consider.
"From the earliest days," the CRS researchers write, "these policy views took on East/West overtones, with easterners more likely to view the lands as national public property, and westerners more likely to view the lands as necessary for local use and development."
That's one reason for the objection from Westerners. The other is that the lock-down on the land came after the East was heavily settled but before the West had been. In the East, land was turned over to farmers. In the West, settled later in the country's history, there were fewer people to hand it to.
Compare the Dakotas to Oregon, for example. In 1910, here's how the population was distributed. Even the Dakotas had pockets of population.
It's still sparsely populated.
But very little of the land is federal.
On that 1910 map, notice that Nevada has very little population -- thanks in part to its landscape being even less hospitable than the Dakotas. Its population is still small, save Reno and Las Vegas.
The vast majority of the land -- including the land around the Bundy ranch -- is owned by the government to this day.
The fight isn't new, as the Congressional Research Service report notes.
What's new is the way in which the broader political moment has cross-pollinated with longstanding objections to how the government manages land out West. The takeover in Oregon has its roots in the Sagebrush Rebellion. They way it's being manifested, though, is as modern as it gets.