LINCOLN – Members of the Oath Keepers, self-described constitutional advocates who came to Lincoln on Monday to intercede in a dispute between miners and the U.S. Forest Service, told about 10 Lincoln residents Thursday that they were not there to disrupt the town or nearby mining reclamation.
“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 Sgt. Maj. (retired) Joseph Santoro.
The meeting took place at Hooper State Park on Thursday evening, with about a dozen members of the Oath Keepers and III% Idaho, 10 area residents and several media outlets.
The Oath Keepers and III% Idaho came to Lincoln at the request of co-owners of Intermountain Mining LLC, George Kornec and Phil Nappo. Kornec lives on the White Hope Mine claim east of town, and Nappo told the Oath Keepers he feared for his partner’s safety due to the actions of the Forest Service.
At issue are noncompliance letters sent to Intermountain and Kornec concerning a garage built on site without authorization and the need for an updated operating plan. The Oath Keepers say such steps are unnecessary because the claim predates 1955 laws that give the Forest Service jurisdiction of surface disturbances, and that the agency has been changing requirements in an attempt to “railroad” the miners off the claim.
The Forest Service counters that the claim was “abandoned” according to the Bureau of Land Management in 1986, meaning the updated claim is left under 1955 laws rather than the mining law of 1872 as the Oath Keepers contend.
Thursday’s meeting was an attempt to assuage some of the concerns of Lincoln residents, as the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s office received multiple calls reporting the groups clad in camouflage and openly carrying firearms when they first got to town. Members of the groups had been instructed not to wear camo or open carry, Santoro said.
“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,” he said.
Contact had been made with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s office and the Oath Keepers were attempting to organize a meeting, Santoro said. Oath Keepers was also in communication with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality about the major reclamation work occurring at the Mike Horse Mine adjacent to the disputed claim. Oath Keepers had no intention of disrupting the project, he said.
A “security team” was “patrolling” the claim, Santoro said, but would not elaborate.
Attending the meeting was resident Frank Malek, who several times told the Oath Keepers he did not understand the show of force when the miners essentially needed legal help.
Oath Keeper public information officer Mary Emerick told him that Kornec and Nappo had asked for both legal help and for the security team, but that she would not have all the details of the request until she talks to them Friday.
Fellow Lincoln resident Todd Fisher thanked the Oath Keepers for coming, in part replying to Malek that “these men are here to protect their constitutional rights.”
The Oath Keepers have gained notoriety in recent years for high profile involvement in disputes between citizens and the U.S. Government.
The group was among the armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Oregon miners at the Sugar Pine Mine in separate disputes with the Bureau of Land Management. The Oath Keepers, and fellow groups calling themselves constitutional advocates say they are just normal people that want to help others.
“We are patriots who believe the Constitution of the United States is the sole law of the land,” said Santoro as the Oath Keepers mobilized in Lincoln on Wednesday. “If we’re uncertain, we don’t do anything until we know if it’s lawful.”
Oath Keepers describes itself as “a nonpartisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ ”
Chris McIntire, public information officer for III% Idaho who has joined Oath Keepers in Lincoln, said the ultimate goal of the security mission is to set up a dialogue with the Forest Service.
“One thing to stress is this is not a standoff, there’s been no confrontation. We have a security operation already in place that’s lawful,” he said.
The Forest Service is entirely at fault for the harassing and threatening of the miners, but the feelings of the community are also a priority, he added.
“We really just want to open a dialogue with the public as well,” McIntire said. “We don’t want to downplay anyone’s concerns.”
Both Santoro and McIntire said that the groups would stay on site as long as is necessary, with Santoro saying that the main goal was to get the miners a day in court.
The Montana Human Rights network monitors the Oath Keepers and other groups they characterize as part of the anti-government "patriot" movement, said co-director Rachel Carroll Rivas.
“When folks like this label themselves as constitutionalists, I think that’s a mask for what they’re really doing,” she said. “It’s not about the Constitution, it’s about being unhappy about one action and saying they know the guise of the Constitution better than the rest of us.”
Rivas described the patriot movement as “wildly ideological” and “paranoid.” The movement also looks for scapegoats to drive an agenda and mobilize against the government, she said.
“What we’re seeing in Lincoln as well as with the Oath Keepers in Oregon is scapegoating economic problems,” Rivas said. “These are big problems we’re talking about with economic issues, so one of the things the oath keepers find is a very simple answer like government employees.”
The Oath Keepers and the larger patriot movement divides communities when they conduct their operations, Rivas said.
“I think that potential for violence and fear is one of the key problems that we see playing out,” she said. “It’s difficult to have a conversation and to engage in a community at the barrel of a gun.”
The patriot movement has a violent history with ties to extreme groups such as white supremacists and militias, she said.
Emerick discounted the link between her group and more extreme ideologies.
“It’s a common misperception – it’s always easy to lump a lot of groups in together that somehow seem to fit together and it’s absolutely an incorrect perception,” she said. “We’re not a militia going out but we do have skilled people to provide that kind of security force if need be.”
Oath Keepers’ public information officer Jason Van Tatenhove pointed out that Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes of Montana is of Hispanic descent, and that the group distances itself from more extreme views.
When it came specifically to the Oath Keepers, Rivas pointed to arrests of self-described members for a variety of weapons and assault charges as evidence of violence.
The Montana Human Rights Network has no evidence that Oath Keepers’ founder has engaged in violence, but “we do have evidence that he’s advocated violence and that creates fear amongst our government workers and then we can’t actually engage with anyone,” Rivas said.
Oath Keepers is not a “militia,” Santoro said, but does work with militias that agree on certain principles. One of those principles is heavily vetting membership to ensure recruits are not felons or simply looking to harm authorities.