Reality in the shape of forest fires and their smoke settled over the scene of the latest antigovernment attempt to provoke a confrontation with the federal government over public lands policy.
The dense haze that hung over Lincoln, Mont., last week was a perfect physical metaphor for the status of the antigovernment extremists who recently descended upon the town.
But in yet another pseudo-showdown with federal lands officials orchestrated by the “Oath Keepers” and their militia-minded associates, the militiamen were basically nowhere to be seen – hunkered back at the mine site, 12 miles east of town on winding and largely inaccessible dirt roads, or hanging out at the local motels and little else.
Out of sight, out of mind, and out of everyone’s hair.
The haze itself was part of the reason that the ongoing presence of a corps of well-armed far-right militiamen quickly receded from memory. It is fire season in Montana, and this season in particular has turned into a nightmarish one, with so many fires here and elsewhere in the Northwest that the entire region has been blanketed in a smoke haze so dense that it obscures the normally scenic hillsides and mountains entirely, and leaves everyone coughing and smelling of campfires.
Just a mile south of Lincoln, the U.S. Forest Service has set up its “Fire Camp” filled with personnel numbering in the low hundreds to handle several large fires that have erupted in the dense forests around Lincoln, a tiny logging town just a little south of the immense Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana. This week, what’s on everyone’s mind is the very real job of keeping the whole place from going up in flames. Though there are still “Oath Keepers” and “III Percenters” in town, it seems they are yesterday’s joke to people in Lincoln.
“I haven’t seen them around much this week,” a waitress told me. “Guess they’re keeping their heads down now.”
It was not that way at the start, when the armed militiamen arrived in Lincoln in mid-August and began parading their weapons about town, sometimes walking down the town’s main strip – Montana Highway 200, a connector road for Missoula and Great Falls – with the AR-15s strapped to their backs in the style of “open carry” advocates.
That upset a lot of locals in this arch-conservative corner of a fairly red state – nearly all of whom own some kind of gun or another, but consider brandishing a gun for its own sake a kind of foolishness.
“Unless it’s hunting season, when everyone has them out, nobody around here walks around with a rifle on display,” a local construction worker told me. “It’s almost rude or something. Like: ‘What do you need that for?’ It’s not necessary, so why do it?”
It also upset a number of people working on a local job site – namely, the large reclamation project under way at Mike Horse Dam, on property directly adjacent to the White Hope Mine where the militiamen are encamped east of town, on a mine site owned by George Kornec and Phil Nappo. The project, which is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), uses the same road as that being used by the Oath Keepers to traipse up to the mine site, but with large earth-moving vehicles that can’t always brake suddenly. Fears about an accident on the narrow dirt roads were well grounded.
A town meeting was held at one point, giving locals a chance to understand why these “Patriots” considered it necessary to be brandishing their guns in protest of people most people in Lincoln considered their neighbors (the USFS is a major employer in the little town) and whether they were going to be careering around the local dirt backroads at the same time as big gravel trucks.
“We are not here to wreak havoc for this city or this county or this state, but we are here to ensure that (miners) Phil and George get their time in court,” said Joseph Santoro, the Army retiree whose video posted at the Oath Keepers website was the first national “call to arms” for Patriots to come to Montana.
“We are not thugs. We are not criminals. We ensure that the people we bring here into your community have been thoroughly vetted. If they are any type of a lunatic fringe, I swear to you they aren’t coming here,” Santoro said.
The mine owners and their supporters eventually worked out a schedule with the DEQ project’s officials to only use the roads during times when the trucks would not be on them, leaving the antigvoernment crew mostly stuck in place at the encampment once working hours began and only relenting when the day was done.
A DEQ project manager told Hatewatch that three days after reaching that deal, a group of militiamen came through the construction site during midday hours in violation of the deal: “Fortunately, my guys were on their toes and nobody got hurt,” she said. The incident spurred further promises to stay off the roads during work hours, and so far, she said, those promises have been kept.
Townfolk say three or four different shifts of campers have come and gone at the mine, with a crew of “III Percenters” from Idaho being the most persistent presence. Initially, a crew of militiamen from Oregon who had been involved in the earlier attempted “showdown” over a silver mine on federal land near Grants Pass was heavily involved in organizing the Lincoln affair, but by late August they had mostly gone back home.
Several reporters have attempted to approach the operation and have been severely rebuffed. Marshall Swearingen, writing for the High Country News, was able to arrange an escort through the DEQ job site, but was rebuffed by the guardsmen he met at the gate to the mine site.
“The operatives forcefully tell me to not take photos,” he wrote. “They will not tell me their names. The man with the angry stare has a radio, and it crackles to life. He answers with a radio handle of ‘Warthog,’ or maybe War Hog — he won't say.
Similarly, Rebecca Schoenkopf, a reporter for Wonkette, was unable to make it past the motel room used by the militiamen as a gathering point. The “Patriot” code-named “Mouse” who greeted her and her husband turned hostile when they identified themselves as liberals and began stonewalling them harshly: “I’m not talking to you. I want your word you won’t write anything that happened in here.”
He concluded the interview: “This did not happen. If you write down anything I said in here, I will call you a liar.”
The dispute over the Montana mine dates back years, to a court hearing in which Kornec lost his original 1872-mining-law-based surface rights to the mine. Kornec is something of a celebrated hermit, though in Lincoln – which is still trying to recover its reputation from its most infamous resident, Ted Kacynski – that is not necessarily an admirable thing.
The presence of an armed threat in the dispute is as strangely detached from the realities of mining on federal land as was the case in Grants Pass, where the mine owners were claiming that the Bureau of Land Management was threatening to burn down their operation, while in fact the dispute was still very much in the paper phase and undergoing adjudication. The Oath Keepers and their cohorts there, in fact, rolled up their camp and declared victory simply upon receiving a judicial hearing for their appeal – a hearing that had long been scheduled before the “showdown.”
On Aug. 11, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the mine owners over the dispute, thereby guaranteeing that Kornec and Natto would get their day in court. And indeed, the Oath Keepers declared victory by having the lawsuit filed against their friends – but then also vowed to remain in Montana until the miners receive their first day in court, too.
"We will continue to remain vigilant and on site and make sure what we achieved yesterday is upheld," spokesman Chris McIntire, a leader of the Idaho contingent, told reporters.
So far, the encampment has remained calm and free of incident – unlike in Oregon, when a report of a mysterious helicopter sparked a short-lived panic in the Patriot encampment and had truckloads of men bristling with weaponry prowling the roads near the mine.
The nearby forest fires, the large Forest Service camp, and the thick haze all put a particular damper on the heated rhetoric that rolled into town along with the armed Patriots, much of it anger directed at the federal government. That kind of talk sounded hollow and ill-tempered at a time when people in western Montana were being reminded that the objects of this antigovernment animus were also their neighbors – in fact, were the very neighbors everyone was depending upon to keep their homes and their livelihoods intact, even as it seemed as if the whole state were afire.
A columnist for the nearby Helena newspaper noted that a commenter on its reportage of the Lincoln standoff caught the gist of the general sentiment there.
“Might as well inform you that my family is ranching and we are certainly NOT a militia, or training anyone in weapons handling. And when we are mad at the Forest Service or BLM, we go see them or ask them to come out and we can talk. That's how Montanans are known for solving things. ...
"Those public servants are our neighbors -- they buy groceries where we do and go to church with us. Our kids are in school together. They are Montanans.
"They are not my enemy."