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Armed protesters rally at BLM office

More than 100 protesters, some of them armed, descended Thursday afternoon on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District office to protest the agency's regulatory action against a gold mine in rural Josephine County.

Supporters of the Sugar Pine Mine claim BLM officials lied when they said owners George Backes and Rick Barclay were required to file a plan of operations for what the agency described as previously unknown mining activity on the claim, located west of Merlin in the Galice Mining District. The agency told them they had to either file a plan or remove their equipment.

"This sign sucks, and so does the BLM," read one of dozens of signs displayed by protesters in the agency's parking lot. Many of the protesters were members of the Oath Keepers movement, a national organization of people who claim to be former and current law enforcement and military personnel sworn to disobey "unconstitutional" orders by the federal government. 

Mary Emerick, spokesperson for the local Oath Keepers, said the group has had volunteers arrive from throughout the western United States since it began guarding the mine. "We had three people drive all night to get here from Montana," she said.

The BLM closed its Medford office because of the protests, citing safety concerns. A number of the protesters openly displayed holstered firearms.

Armed volunteers from the Oath Keepers have maintained a constant presence around the Josephine County mine since last week following a request by the miners, who said they feared the BLM would destroy their cabin and equipment on their claim before they could appear in court to appeal the agency's noncompliance order. 

"We decided to stand up for our rights, and I don't think we did wrong with the crowd we have here," Backes said, prompting cheers from the protesters.

The miners contend they legally control all of the land and resources within the claim, which they said has been continuously mined since the 1800s, predating the Surface Resources Act of 1955, which made future claims apply only to mineral rights. The BLM says the land belongs to the federal government and that the miners have to file a plan of operations for any mining activities.

"(The miners) have a particular interpretation of the Constitution that has not been recognized by any federal court," said BLM spokesman Tom Gorey.

Joseph Rice, identified as the Oath Keepers' Josephine County coordinator, said local news media were complicit in spreading what he called "disinformation" by local BLM public affairs officer Jim Whittington.

"What I've seen is an editorialized viewpoint," he said. Rice said the Oath Keepers intend to keep guarding the mine until Backes and Barclay are able to appear in court. 

"I'm happy to go to court, if I can even get to court without them burning my stuff down," Barclay said.

Gorey said the agency doesn't know where the miners' fears of cabin burning originated.

"There's no threat to their cabin or equipment — there's never been," he said, adding that rumors on social media are contributing to what he described as a "non-positive dialogue." "There's just no truth to it. It's a false narrative."

Gorey said there seems to be a strain of paranoia that the BLM is part of a vast government conspiracy against the miners.

"It's virtually impossible to refute," he said, pointing to the difficulty inherent in disproving the existence of a conspiracy. "I think once someone summoned in the Oath Keepers, this took on a whole new dimension and then it was associated with (Cliven) Bundy and this whole issue of federal ownership of lands versus private ownership versus state ownership and does the federal government own this land, which we would contend, yes, belongs to all of the American people."

Comparisons to Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose 2014 dispute with the BLM over grazing rights drew armed supporters from throughout the country, have been numerous since the miners' dispute became public, although supporters have rejected notions that they're engaged in a similar standoff. (Reports that Bundy would appear at the Medford rally were apparently incorrect.)

In Bundy's case, BLM law enforcement rangers ultimately backed down after they were confronted by his armed supporters, releasing cattle they had corralled for illegally grazing federal lands. One protester at Thursday's rally was seen wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, "We made a difference at Bundy Ranch." 

BLM officials said the agency received the miners' appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals Wednesday and that a court date for the case will be determined by the board.

Gorey said that the land appeals board is the proper venue for the miners' claim to surface ownership, even if that claim is unlikely to be recognized. "It's an administrative issue," he said.

The agency was expected to make a decision late Thursday about when the Medford office will reopen for business.

"I don't think the presence of guns at a protest sends a message that is well received by people who work in those buildings, and I think it's understandable," Gorey said. "We need to be vigilant and make sure our employees are protected, as well as the visiting public."

Local law enforcement agencies are investigating threats made against BLM employees by supporters, BLM officials have said.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471 or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com.

Oath Keepers members have vowed to guard the mine until its owners have their day in court. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Supporters of the Sugar Pine Mine near Merlin protest outside the Medford Bureau of Land Management offices Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch