Friday, February 5, 2016
When Stephen Miller blogged a week ago about the implications of the occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, it seemed like things were winding to a close. Ammon Bundy and the other organizers had been arrested and LaVoy Finicum killed in a confrontation with federal law enforcement personnel, and many of the other occupiers had scattered. But today, the occupation enters day 35, as four hold-outs remain at the sanctuary.
Whatever the outcome of the occupation, this action has sparked a national examination of the pressures facing ranchers, federal control of land, and the implications to the Western way of life. However, other writers have noted that Malheur is actually at the center of a collaborative approach to land management that balances the concerns of environmentalists, conservationists, and local land owners, and that the occupiers were completely out of line in their attempt to make the refuge a symbol of federal overreach.
On both sides of my family, I come from stock that is deeply tied to the land and interested in the outcome of these disputes. My maternal grandfather joined the US Forest Service in the early part of the last century, and spent his career (and his days in the Montana Senate after his retirement) implementing the "Multiple Use" philosophy, which attempted to balance conservation and resource extraction. And my paternal grandparents were ranchers in Eastern Montana until the 1980s, when they lost the ranch due to the collapse of the beef cattle market.
So I've always felt conflicting loyalties in any discussion over management of federal lands in the West. On the one hand, I recognize that the settlement of the West and the continued viability of the Western economy was and is extremely dependent on federal largess. It's difficult to find unbiased analysis of whether that largess is a necessary part of the ranching economy, or simply "welfare ranching." There's also the issue that small time ranch owners may be increasingly pushed out by billionaire land owners like the Koch Brothers. There does seem to be a consensus that absentee ownership of farm and ranchland is on the rise. And some pretty extreme political actors have risen to fill the vacuum.
Some of the best reporting on the Malheur standoff and related issues is being done by High Country News. In addition to their close coverage of the day-to-day developments, they've also provided a platform for Westerners voices both sympathetic and unsympathetic to the Bundys' concerns. And HCN is doing a terrific series of stories on the revived Sagebrush Rebellion and the complex interplay of politicians, "Constitutional sheriffs" and other players in the drama. You can check it out here.
Jamie Baker Roskie