In Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West, journalist James Pogue investigates the 2016 occupation near Burns, Oregon, in which armed militants seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge demanding the return of federal land to local control. Led by the charismatic Ammon Bundy, the forty-day siege was joined by a variety of right-wing militant groups and so-called sovereign citizens. Embedding himself in the siege, Pogue finds not so much a movement looking to sever itself from the United States, but one intent on returning America to a largely apocryphal past premised on devout constitutionalism and individualism. As one Oregon occupier put it, “We’re, like, the best people that you could possibly imagine.”
Pogue understands firsthand the allure of the West. His own time trekking about vast expanses of federal terrain, living off the land and out of automobiles, satisfied a longing he developed from an alienating upbringing as a teenage anarchist living in Cincinnati’s posh East Side. He touches on the history of the Great Basin—a watershed that touches Oregon, Nevada, California, Idaho, and Wyoming—to explain its importance as a backdrop to the long struggle between the United States government and homesteaders, ranchers, and prospectors who pushed out West ahead of the nation in the late nineteenth century. For more than a hundred years, the Homestead Acts had served as the mechanisms for managing and dividing up these expanses, permitting Americans to stake their claims to unsettled land. But in 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The law gave the Bureau of Land Management—which had, up to that point, worked in relative concert with ranchers, loggers, and miners—new territorial policing powers and the right to exact licensing fees for use of the land for commercial purposes.
Seen as evidence of encroachment by a distant, elite-driven government, the 1976 law deepened the ongoing rivalry between government conservationists, who established vast expanses of protected federal land, and cattlemen, who insisted that the government held no right to own property beyond that which is enumerated in the constitution. This gave rise to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ‘80s. Though originally local and limited in scope, the Sagebrush Rebellion drew nationwide attention and support among advocates of limited government. These included conservative politicians—Ronald Reagan, for example, counted himself among the rebels. It also helped spawn a sometimes violent militia movement. Although these groups have seen their numbers fluctuate over the years, right-wing militia activity spiked after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In 2016, Pogue was on hand to see how the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign dovetailed with the activities of the Bundy clan, whose acts of resistance became symbolic of the broader political divide. Much of Pogue’s focus is on Ammon Bundy, who became an avatar for conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul warning against an overreaching federal government intent on dictating the lives of ordinary citizens. Cruz went so far as to call the standoff “the unfortunate and tragic culmination” of President Obama’s “jackboot of authoritarianism.”