LAS VEGAS — Right fight; wrong strategy.

That’s what many ranchers and sympathizers opposing federal control of public lands in the West concluded after the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.

For some, the weekslong standoff that ended Thursday with the surrender of the final occupiers has only strengthened their resolve to fight the government’s control of vast expanses of Western land. But not all condone the tactics of the armed group that drew the nation’s gaze to the snowy landscapes of eastern Oregon.

“We’re not backing off,” said Greg Whalen, a military veteran from Las Vegas who supports the Bundy ranching family that led the occupation. “We’re actually going to fight harder – peacefully.”

Whalen and others say protests must remain a key part of the strategy – but they must be civil to avoid giving a reason for arrests.

Others suggest the battle should shift to the courts to pry authority over open space from the federal government. State lawmakers, notably in Utah, are considering a legal way to take control of U.S. lands that account for a majority of the West, including most of Nevada; about two-thirds of Utah, Idaho and Alaska; and half of Oregon.

Federal officials say U.S. control ensures the land is used in the interest of the environment, outdoor enthusiasts and industries, such as ranching, mining, and oil and gas.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert denounced the tactics in the standoff but called it “a wakeup call for all of us that there (are) legitimate issues out there that are causing frustration.”

Supporters say sympathy from prominent Western politicians shows that their mantra – that locals can do a better job managing federal lands than out-of-touch bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. – has been embraced by more than gun-toting protesters.

“We’re not just cowboys with hats who are hicks and don’t know what’s going on,” said LisaMarie Johnson, who stood with Cliven Bundy at his Nevada ranch in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents. Bundy is the father of the Oregon occupation’s leaders.

The dispute predates statehood in some places. But calls for action have gotten louder as federal agencies designate protected areas for endangered species and set aside tracts for mining, wind farms and natural gas exploration.

Occupiers that seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Jan. 2 demanded the U.S. turn over the land to locals and release two ranchers imprisoned for setting fires.

Tom Haynie, a 58-year-old Las Vegas resident who’s also passionate about solar energy, medical marijuana and water in the West, subscribes to a common belief in the movement.

“The government wants to control everything,” Haynie said. “But it’s the people’s land, not the federal government’s land.”


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