It’s like an Arizona reunion out on the snowy flatlands of southeastern Oregon.
Our state was already well-represented among the armed militants who are occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Now, Tucson resident Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, has shown up and helped lead opposition to the occupiers.
Suckling is an old adversary of the Bundy family, members of which are leading the occupation, because the center has sued them for overgrazing on federal lands.
These days, Suckling has been challenging the occupiers’ claim of the moral high ground, arguing that the refuge and other federally owned lands are public lands, not to be turned over to private interests.
“I feel like this is some sort of proxy Arizona war,” Suckling said.
I talked with Suckling, a renowned and in some circles reviled environmentalist, by phone from Oregon Tuesday.
Q: Why are you there?
A: We’re here to protect America’s public lands against an armed militia that is trying to take it away at gunpoint.
Q: What have you done while you’re there?
A: We have been going up to the Bundy militia’s daily press conferences, then after they do their spiel, we get up and have our own press conference at their press conference to tell the real story of what the militia is doing to our public lands.
Today, we’re holding our own environmental rally to talk about why it would be such a disaster to turn our public lands over to miners, loggers and ranchers.
Q: How have relations been between you and the occupiers?
A: They have been just short of outright violent,. They have been insanely aggressive and threatening. They come out with their guns, get in our faces and scream. I went down in the compound itself to send the message that this is public land. We don’t agree that it’s occupied.
Q: How dangerous is what you’re doing?
A: It’s dangerous. When we’re up there at their press conferences and they’re getting in our faces screaming at us, they’ve got the rifles and everything.
We’ve been moving around motels for safety reasons, since we’re now publicly known. There’s more militia in town than there is in the refuge: 15-20 in the refuge headquarters, a camp of 12 about five miles below them.
Then, in town, there’s probably 100-plus militia. They’re staying in a bunch of motels. When you go to motels, it’s chock-full of these guys. I figure it’s most dangerous in town. Those are the fringe people. They’re out drinking and getting testosterone-filled.
Q: It’s been emerging over the last few days that the occupiers are followers of the ideology laid out by anti-communist conspiracist W. Cleon Skousen in the 1960s. What’s your understanding?
A: Their position following Skousen is that the Constitution is the only law of the land. All other laws are illegal and should be ignored and thrown out. The only duty anyone has is to follow the Constitution. All other laws are tyranny.
They believe the Constitution forbids not just the actions but the very existence of the federal government. They claim the very existence of the federal government is a tyrannical violation of the Constitution. Since the federal government doesn’t exist, it can’t own any federal land.
They also believe, since the U.S. government doesn’t exist, that there’s no such thing as U.S. citizenship. When (Cliven) Bundy (the father of two Malheur occupiers) lost the last time (in court), his argument was that I am not a citizen of the United States and consequently the government has no jurisdiction over me. These guys go right down the whole sovereign citizen line.
Q: Could you all at the Center for Biological Diversity not be rightfully blamed for pushing the ranchers into a desperate situation?
A: This stuff has been going on since the 1930s. This sort of Sagebrush Rebellion thing just cycles through every 15 or 20 years. That was long before there were even environmental laws or environmentalists.
The Bundys say this themselves — this is not fundamentally about grazing and grazing restrictions at all. What they’re talking about here every day is that the federal government has no right to own land. It should be given to the loggers and miners and ranchers.
The militia guys who are out there, they aren’t ranchers. They’re just crazies from Cleveland, Portland or Miami who hate the government.
Q: Couldn’t the federal government arrest these guys?
A: Absolutely! Last night I’m at a public meeting with Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Fluffy Unicorn (the nickname of an occupier) and Ryan Payne. They’re right there. They drove up, went to a public meeting in a hotel, got back in their car, and drove away.
It’s not just that they (federal agents) are not attacking the refuge. They (occupiers) are allowed to come and go and mill around and come and go as they please.
Q: What would you like the feds to do?
A: They should cut off power and water to the refuge. It’s freezing out here. There’s also only one road in … block the road and don’t let any more militia in.