In the spring of 2015, residents of Josephine County, Oregon, noticed the arrival of a disconcerting number of out-of-towners with guns. The strangers had come to the remote forested area to join “Operation Gold Rush”—a militia operation organized by the Oath Keepers, a national “Patriot” group. For six weeks they camped out at the Sugar Pine gold mine, ostensibly to defend the mine and its owners, who were embroiled in a complicated dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. Nothing much seemed to come from the operation: The leader of the local Oath Keepers chapter declared victory and ordered a stand-down after a court ruling kept the BLM from taking enforcement action.1

Anticlimactic as it was, the Sugar Pine incident was a warning signal about the growing boldness of anti–federal government militias in the western United States. Many of those who answered the Oath Keeper’s online call to action and traveled to Josephine County last year had also been at Cliven Bundy’s ranch during the 2014 standoff between the rancher’s supporters and federal agents; militia members claimed victory there, too, after the Bureau of Land Management backed off to avoid a shootout. (The BLM was trying to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle because he’d refused to pay the $1 million he owed for illegal grazing on public land.) Then some went on to support mine owners in Montana during a dispute with the US Forest Service later in 2015. And some of them attended the January rally in Burns, Ore., that led to the Bundy brothers’ 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 2

The militia movement claimed another victory last week, when a jury acquitted seven of the Malheur occupiers, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, of conspiracy and weapons charges. The verdict came as a surprise even to the defense team. It was clouded by the 11th-hour dismissal of a juror, and questions about whether prosecutors erred in leveling a conspiracy charge, which required proof of intent. But what’s done is done. Of concern now is whether the acquittal will fuel new conflicts over public lands, and invigorate the militant “Patriot” movement that has grown markedly in the past eight years. 3

“I think there’s no question that it’s going to embolden the radical anti-government movement,” said Ryan Lenz, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog. Amplified by social media, that movement has grown from about 150 active groups when Barack Obama was first elected in 2008 to nearly 1,000 now, according to the SPLC. Bunkerville, as the standoff at the Bundy’s Nevada ranch is known, was a pivotal moment for the movement. It took more than two years for the government to prosecute anyone involved, giving the impression that armed groups could effectively run off federal authorities without consequences. The Oregon verdict may send a similar message, Lenz said: that threats of violence are a valid approach to addressing grievances with the government. 4

But impunity is not the only thing fueling the rise of militias. They’re also taking advantage of economic uncertainty and a political vacuum in rural areas. The Oath Keepers arrived in Josephine County at a time when funding for county services, including public safety, had dried up. The timber industry, which supplied much of the county’s tax revenue, was essentially bust, and voters rejected repeated attempts by the county government to raise property taxes to fill the void. The recession made matters worse, as did Congress, which periodically failed to fund the Secure Rural Schools Act, which was supposed to compensate for some of the lost timber revenue. Josephine County couldn’t afford 24 hour 911 service, and sheriff’s deputies were only on duty during weekdays. Things are similarly bleak in Harney County, too, where the Malheur occupation took place. 5

“In some of these communities, these militia groups were the only people offering solutions.… It was really clear that they were doing good organizing, good movement building that was speaking to people’s needs in communities where public safety had just fallen out,” said Jessica Campbell, the co-director of an Oregon coalition called the Rural Organizing Project, which works to build other, nonviolent forms of community cohesion. Campbell has been stalked, harassed, shot at, and had her car’s wheels loosened and fuel line cut by militia members, she believes, because of her work. Still, she understands why people find the anti-government message appealing. “We have a majority Democratic legislature, so a lot of folks feel like they don’t have political clout. They feel disenfranchised in this state, and a lot of that is real, because a lot of progressive political leadership doesn’t come east of the [Cascade] mountains,” she said.

The Bundys painted themselves as champions of these forgotten areas, and one of their codefendants called the verdict “a stunning victory for rural America.” But rural politics are more complicated than the Bundy gang acknowledges. As I reported at the beginning of the Malheur occupation, few locals supported it, even if they held their own grievances against the government. Many people in Harney County and other rural areas work for federal land-management agencies, which are now bracing for copycat attacks that could endanger some of those workers. (Employees of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and other federal workers in the area reported that during the Bundy occupation they and their families received threats.) After the Bunkerville standoff, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, threats and attacks against BLM and US Forest Service employees jumped by 87 percent and 60 percent, respectively. “In rural communities, a lot of folks are pretty scared—scared of an occupation happening in their communities, scared that vigilante violence will go completely unchecked,” Campbell said.7

Prosecutors will have another go at the Bundy gang in February, in the Bunkerville trial in Nevada, where more serious charges are in question. A conviction would signal that militia members are not above the law, whether they’re threatening Forest Services employees or staging paramilitary operations on the US-Mexico border. But since the foundational argument advanced by the Bundys (and other “Patriots”) is that federal law is itself unjust and tyrannical, it is hard to see how a conviction would dismantle their mythology. Many of the claims advanced by the Bundys regarding public lands have already been embraced by the Republican mainstream: The Republican Party Platform adopted in July calls on Congress to transfer control of some federally controlled land to the states. Much of the work to protect public lands from future legislative and criminal attacks has to be done not in a courtroom but out in the communities at the center of these disputes. 8

Shortly after the Malheur takeover began, historian Nancy Langston described the bird refuge as “a place of bitterly contested human histories,” which the occupation only seemed to confirm. But it’s also true that Malheur is a place of surprising collaboration between ranchers, environmentalists, and federal agencies. Over 11 years, those oft-opposed stakeholders hammered out a deal that allowed for grazing, water protection, and wildlife habitat restoration to occur simultaneously on the refuge. That partnership may at least partly explain why Harney County locals didn’t jump up to join the Bundys in an armed insurrection. Now, The Oregonian reports, the Interior Department is looking to Malheur as a model for managing other land disputes. It will be slow, uncertain work, but no less certain than the outcome of the legal system.9