The acquittal of Ammon Bundy and other militia members who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last January leaves our public lands and the people who steward them in a vulnerable position. Indeed, it puts a target on their backs.

The Bundy family has said as much. “The government should be scared,” Ryan Bundy asserted to the Washington Post less than a week after their acquittal. “They are in the wrong. The land does not belong to the government. The land belongs to the people of Clark County, not to the people of the United States.” When asked whether he and fellow militiamen had the right to take up arms to assert their control of the public land, Bundy declared: “Ask George Washington.”

This brazen and unapologetic rhetoric is a striking contrast to the Oregon jury’s carefully tailored language about their decision to free those men who bore arms against the federal government. As one juror told the Portland Oregonian in response to the post-verdict uproar: “Don’t they know that ‘not guilty’ does not mean innocent?”

Clearly the militants, whose actions echo 20th-century Sagebrush Rebellions to take local control of public lands, know no such thing. For them the verdict offered an affirming message which, in my view, imperils the public servants who protect our lands in the face of a long history of threats and violence.

Debate over public lands has been a crucial part of my scholarship, but it also contains a personal dimension: For the past three decades I have been helping to train Forest Service leaders at all levels of the organization. A key part of my contribution to their studies has been the impact of the Sagebrush Rebellion, past and present, on the management and managers of our public lands. This close relationship leaves me deeply concerned for their safety.

History of violence

My worry is also framed within the larger political context: The Bundy verdict will play into the hands of those political forcesstate legislatures, governors, and congressional representativeswho have been scheming to force the sale or the giving away of U.S. public lands to the individual states. The Republican Party platform is on record as being in full support of this dismantling of our system of national forests, parks, and refuges.

Ammon Bundy and his followers make the same case. In a post-trial press conference, the defendants underscored their posture as patriots, who by dint of arms have defended the Constitution from an overly aggressive federal government.

As for the group’s possession of weapons, that is described in the most benign terms: “For these defendants and these people, having a firearm has nothing to do with a threat or anything else,” Bundy defense attorney Matthew Schindler declared. “It’s as much a statement of their rural culture as a cowboy hat or a pair of jeans. I think the jury believed at the end of the day that that’s why the guns were there.”

However folksy his language, it masks the historical reality that such threats to public servants protecting public lands have been commonplace for more than a century.

No sooner had Congress in 1891 granted the executive branch the power to redesignate federal lands as national forests and to establish regulations for their use, than some westerners rose up in opposition. The grazing, mining, and lumbering industries chafed at the small fees they were required to pay for the resources they once took at will. As I observe in my analysis of the Malheur occupation in my new book, Not So Golden State, they fought back in the federal court system courts, and lost every test case.

On the ground, they took out their frustrations on the local representatives of the nascent Forest Service. The verbal and bodily threats against its employees were so omnipresent that the agency’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot, made it a point to visit every hotspot to demonstrate that he had employees’ backs. And when the good citizens of Cordova, Alaska, hung Pinchot in effigy, he made certain to travel there, too.

Similar attacks continued across the last century. In the 1940s, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and social critic Bernard DeVoto wrote a series of essays in Harper’s that exposed how the “Landgrabbers” of his generation intimidated Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangers across the West, bullied the agencies’ Washington offices and used their clout to bend the U.S. House subcommittee on public lands to their will. Their threats to employ the “sterner justice” of mob violence only underscored that their “ultimate hope,” DeVoto affirmed, “is to destroy the established conservation policies of the United States.”

President Ronald Reagan fanned these flames when he came to power in 1981, arguing that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That was music to the ears of those, like earlier generations of the Bundy family, who disdained federal land managers.

Egged on by right-wing talk radio commentators, verbal and physical attacks escalated. Vigilantes bombed Forest Service offices, a ranger discovered an explosive device under his truck and Elko County (Nevada) commissioners used bulldozers to crash through Forest Service fencing. The agency responded by urging its staff to wear civilian clothes on the job and drive their personal vehicles to work.

Fuel to the fire

There is reason to suspect that this kind of coercion and violence will resume in the wake of the Malheur acquittals, just as it did in the initial aftermath of the Malheur occupation in January. Last winter, according to the nonpartisan conservation and advocacy group the Center for Western Priorities, land managers reported a troubling increase in confrontations with Sagebrush-like groups on federal lands.

Bureau of Land Management employees received death threats and even withdrew from the contentious Gold Butte rangelands on which the Bundys graze their cattle, whose archaeological treasures have since then been trashed. The Fish and Wildlife Service reported a number of confrontations with “militia” groups on refuges, which understandably intensified rangers’ fears for their welfare.

Their anxieties have increased post-verdict. “The danger is that we get armed invasions of all kinds of public lands and similar institutions,” argues Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The real danger is bloodshed.” His colleague, Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, drives the point home: “This is a growing movement that is probably going to grow more due to this verdict because they have shown they can use armed interventions and not be punished for them.”

One of the Bundy jurors even anticipated this dire possibility: “It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.”

Fair enough. But whatever regrettable “future actions” occur, it will not be the jurors who will endure them but the dedicated men and women stewarding our public lands, our most treasured terrain. Who will step up and protect them?

The Conversation

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