Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2019

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (BA)


Environmental Studies


John Van Buren

Second Advisor

Steven Stoll


This thesis closely examines the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by conservative activists in 2016 as well as the historical and political parameters that allowed the event to occur in modern-day rural Oregon. First, the occupiers, members of local and national chapters of the Patriot movement, are considered along with their conservative ideological predecessors. The historical-political origins of Oregon - with its storied direct democracy system and a resulting culture of staunch populism - give insight into the regional support for the occupiers. A meticulous examination of the event provides a window into deeper ethical discussions of land tenure and resiliency in the American West, particularly in light of drastic environmental degradation. As part of the project of American imperial expansion in an ecologically marginal environment, Western political discourse and legislation revolved around Lockean conceptions of land, property, and capital. These European legalistic perspectives applied to new, violently acquired land birthed a series of unsustainable and unjust land tenure systems in Oregon and, more broadly, the American West. The ranch, the corporate enterprise, and the national park are all examples of land tenure systems that for their existence require the systematic dispossession and genocide of indigenous communities. Each configuration cultivates a socially and environmentally untenable relationship between humankind and the land, prompting an interrogation of American dominant culture land ethics and tenure. The stakes of the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge go beyond Burns, OR, necessarily calling for drastic change in land management and governance in the United States.