|A sentinel greeted visitors on the road to the Sugar Pine Mine. (Credit: Josephine County Oath Keepers website.)|
What began as a paper dispute over the language in a claim for an old gold mine in the hills of southwestern Oregon has lurched into what the antigovernment “Patriots” arriving on scene seemingly hope will be an armed confrontation with federal authorities.
Most of those arriving at the scene of the dispute over the Sugar Pine Mine near tiny Merlin, Ore., and nearby towns such as Grants Pass and Medford, believe they are engaging in a stand against a tyrannical federal government and the Bureau of Land Management – the second chapter in a fight that began a year ago with the Bundy Ranch standoff.
But as the mine owners now are stressing to the militia members and antigovernment activists pouring into the valley after heeding the call: “This is NOT a standoff with BLM. We are NOT promoting any confrontation with BLM. This is a security operation for the protection of Constitutional Rights.”
“If you are on a fringe element, and you’re here to protest, or provoke a reaction with the federal government, I don’t want you here,” said Joseph Rice, the “security coordinator” for the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers, in a YouTube video on the Oath Keepers site. “Let me repeat that: If you’re here to protest and to provoke a reaction with the federal government, I do not need you.”
Since the people arriving in Oregon are apparently ready for action, and there isn’t any action on the horizon other than in a courtroom or at an administrative hearing, they’re taking matters into their own hands.
Today, they’re planning a “Sugar Pine Mine Support Rally” outside the combined offices of the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service in Medford. Organizer Kerby Jackson urged all supporters who couldn’t attend to hold protests outside their local BLM offices.
“We are calling on all miners, loggers, farmers/ranchers and freedom lovers everywhere who are tired of government abuse to tell the BLM that the people of this country that they are sick to death of the way that they have been conducting themselves,” he wrote on Facebook.
Jackson is one of the ringleaders of a group at the center of the dispute, which includes the mine’s co-owners, Rick Barclay and George Backes, who both have expressed affinities for the Oath Keepers’ “constitutionalist” beliefs. They and the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers last week sent out a nationwide plea for help in protecting the mine from the BLM.
Coming the same week as the one-year anniversary of the Bundy Ranch standoff, the story was widely circulated by websites as Alex Jones’ InfoWars and the similarly conspiracy theorist website NextNewsNetwork, whose reporter interviewed Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes about the scene in Oregon. “Our goal is to make sure the miners have their day in court and due process,” Rhodes said.
And Oath Keepers are coming come en masse to ensure that happens.
Among those who have come to the mine is Arizona militiaman Blaine Cooper, who made a video widely seen on YouTube urging Patriots to make their way to Oregon.
They’re calling it a “security operation” largely because owner Rick Barclay insists that the BLM is notorious for burning down miners’ cabins in the backwoods, and he believes they’d have destroyed his mine if he had not called for help. Cooper was last seen leading a group of anti-Obama protesters outside the White House, including several who demanded the president be hung.
So far, the mine’s owners have seemed to welcome support from the antigovernment movement.
“I’m absolutely positive the BLM has not destroyed my property because it has been protected, as have my rights, by a group of folks,” Barclay said in a video posted on the Josephine County Oath Keepers site. “They came at my request. I requested their presence. I still request their presence, until such time as I achieve my due process.”
BLM employees are somewhat flabbergasted that a dispute over unfiled paperwork could somehow erupt into a situation in which weapons are now being brandished.
“From our perspective, it’s been pretty much the same thing we always do,” BLM spokesman Jim Whittington said. “This is not a process that is new to us. We have hundreds of claims down here, and it’s not uncommon for us to come across operations that are not in compliance or don’t have documentation. So it’s kind of a shock to have this blow up like this.”
What the Oath Keepers will do now is anyone’s guess, considering that guards on the dirt road leading up to the staging area are reportedly turning away anyone without specific permission from the Oath Keepers.
The Sugar Pine Mine is an old claim dating, its owners say, to 1865. It is located on land administered by the BLM, though Barclay and his peers claim, much like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy did, that federal jurisdiction doesn’t extend to their claim. Also like Bundy, Barclay claims that his title to the mine preceded Oregon and federal jurisdictions and that federal officials hadn’t sent them proof that the BLM had obtained surface rights to the mining claim.
Whiting explained that the owners’ complaints about nonresponses to document requests were a matter of impatience: “They filed a bunch of FOIAs and we’re like any government agency that’s inundated with FOIAs, it’s just the nature of the business. We answered two last week, two this week, and another one is coming next week.”
As for the mine owners’ fears that BLM would destroy their property, Whittington said it’s just a groundless charge. “The idea that we would go in on Friday and wipe everything off the claim is just not true,” he said. “It has no basis in reality.”
He reminded Hatewatch: “These are public lands. The road going through their claim is a public road. Even if they did have surface rights, BLM could still come in there and inspect the mining claim to make sure they were following the law.”
Whittington said that so far, BLM employees in the field haven’t had any ugly incidents. However, office workers manning their phones in the past week have had to deal with a barrage of threats from anonymous callers angered after reading the Internet accounts from Oath Keepers and other “Patriots.”
“We take threats to BLM employees and other federal employees seriously, and we will investigate those threats. As long as those threats are under investigation, then we are not going to comment on the particulars of those threats. There have been threats, but they have all been by phone,” Whiting said.
In the meantime, rumors are beginning to circulate of dissension within the ranks of the gathered Oath Keepers – a familiar scenario that also manifested itself at the Bundy Ranch after a few weeks of forced togetherness among the gathered “Patriots” there, who eventually broke apart amid acrimony and pointed guns.
As the Thursday event approached, even Rick Barclay was sounding eager for his would-be defenders to leave.
In an interview with the Medford Mail-Tribune, he denounced the scene near his mine: “What you’re seeing is mostly a spectacle caused by social media and ‘keyboard commandos’ whooping it up.” He seemed eager to draw a curtain on the drama.
“As soon as I get my court arrangements made, the Oath Keepers are leaving,” he said. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”