WHEN A SMALL GROUP of gun-toting, anti-government zealots illegally occupied a collection of buildings on an Eastern Oregon wildlife refuge on Saturday, January 2, they set a dramatic stage for their demands.
The militants, led by a Nevada ranching family that forced an armed standoff with the federal government in 2014, quickly lost their first battle: Keeping two Harney County ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, out of prison. The Hammonds turned themselves in to federal authorities to serve out years-long sentences on arson convictions on Monday.
By then, Ammon Bundy, the militant group's apparent leader, had already announced another aim. He said his group would return the 187,757-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to the hands of "the people"—opening it up to ranching, mining, and timber production, and ending its century-long stint as an important sanctuary for migratory birds.
"We're going to go to work," occupier LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher, told reporters Monday. "We're going to help restore these ranchers [on refuge land]."
Coming amid some fairly serious law breaking and the threat of an armed standoff with authorities, the aims were easy to dismiss as a crackpot claim. But in fact, the notion has its share of sympathizers in Oregon politics.
In 2015, conservative state legislators introduced a flurry of bills and other legislative items that aimed to do exactly what Bundy, Finicum, and their ilk are demanding: put the federal government's Oregon land holdings into state control.
Many of the lawmakers who support taking control of federal land—more than half the state is under federal ownership—argue the feds do a terrible job managing its properties, creating scenarios where disease and wildfire can flourish. But they're also not shy about a larger aim: opening up more of Oregon to logging, mining, and ranching, just as the Bundy group has proposed.
"It should be settled in a court of law whether [Western states] should be treated differently, with so much of our lands in the hands of the federal government," says state Representative Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass).
Wilson, like other legislators proposing a land deal, doesn't agree with the militants' actions. But he says he's watched the state's logging-reliant counties wither away as federal timber payments dwindle but large swaths of land remain largely off limits to logging.
"I've seen what has happened in Grants Pass and Josephine County," he says. "We're absolutely dredging the bottom of the barrel to provide public services in this community."
The push to snatch control of federal lands is nothing new, of course. There have been similar efforts for decades, as rural Westerners bristle at federal strictures. But the issue has increasingly popped up in state legislatures in recent years—in part because the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has pushed boilerplate laws.
According to the conservation-minded Center for Western Priorities, 36 "land seizure" bills were introduced in 11 Western states in 2015.
"It really didn't come from a lot of Westerners saying, 'We're pissed off,'" says John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University who studies public lands policy. "It was driven by East Coast, right-wing intellectuals."
During Oregon's 2015 legislative session, Wilson put forth two legislative measures aimed at triggering a land swap—one a "memorial" formally requesting the president turn over public lands, the other a bill to put together a committee to study the matter.
Those attempts went nowhere, just like two other measures with similar aims. That's partly because the concept isn't well received by many in conservation-conscious Oregon. Not a single liberal in the Democrat-dominated Oregon Legislature signed onto the measures, and groups like the Sierra Club and Oregon Wild vehemently opposed them. They worry that wildlife habitats, recreation lands, and water resources could be harmed—or sold off to private interests to generate revenue.
"We've discovered the desert's kind of cool," says Freemuth. "It's not just ranchers and miners who care about it any more. It's gorgeous country."
There are other reasons to question a state takeover of federal lands. One biggie is cost.
In 2014, the University of Idaho looked at whether taking over federal lands would actually make that state any money. Under three scenarios considered, only the one involving the most extensive logging would've resulted in a revenue gain, the study found, because it's expensive to manage these lands. More restrained logging, the report found, could have resulted in nearly $100 million in losses annually.
Wilson and others pushing these ideas say they're not sure what the cost scenarios are, and swear they're not talking about extensive logging.
"It would be a fantastic challenge to all of us," Wilson says. "Suddenly we'd have half our state that can be in some form of production."
It's deeply unclear whether the federal government would ever agree to the land deal conservatives are pushing. Utah, which sits at the vanguard of the land reclamation movement, passed a bill in 2012 demanding the feds turn over 30 million acres of public lands to the states.
That hasn't happened. There are no signs it will.