PRINCETON, Ore. (CN) – When Ammon Bundy took over the federal headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, he hoped his presence would ignite an explosion of extremist activism in support of the conservative movement to seize control of federal lands across the American West. But his plans were thwarted by the unique bonds local ranchers, environmentalists and government employees forged over years of collaborative land management.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who runs the local government alongside two county commissioners, said the community’s close relationships immunized residents against the political agenda peddled by Ammon Bundy and his minions.
“We have it – a way forward,” Grasty said. “That’s why Bundy picked the wrong county. In 1999, it might not have been the wrong county. Things might have turned out worse. But this was the wrong time and the wrong county. Because we’re moving things ahead.”
The threat of similar standoffs over federally owned land is spreading across the American West. But officials at the highest levels of government say this remote rural community should serve as a model for the rest of the nation to emulate.
With Ammon Bundy and dozens of others in jail over the occupation of Malheur and the 2014 standoff at his father Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch, the movement to take public land out of federal hands could fizzle.
But it could also intensify, according to Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“It may be that the FBI will break the back of the militia movement,” Suckling said. “But it’s too early to know. With the Bundys in jail, will new leaders rise up? The threat of another armed standoff is very real. And there is absolutely a very real threat of federal employees being harmed or possibly killed. But that’s not just a threat. It’s something that’s really happening.”
Since 1997, there have been between 15 and 42 violent attacks every year against employees of the Bureau of Land Management, according to a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The FBI may have chopped off the head of the snake, but public lands watchdog group The Center for Western Priorities says that may not end the militia movement’s push to “steal our public land.”
“It’s fair to say we’re at a crucial juncture right now,” Aaron Weiss, the group’s spokesman, said. “The concern is extremist groups are still looking for a “constitutional sheriff” to give them cover. They believe that Bundy failed not because his message was flawed or because the community didn’t support him but because [Harney County] Sheriff Ward didn’t do his job.
“They live in a bizarro world where the sheriff has ultimate authority. There’s zero backing for that legally. But they’re looking for a sheriff to give them cover.”
Unusually Strong Bonds in a Small Rural Community
Harney County, home to the refuge and 7,100 people in south-central Oregon, sprawls over horizons of flat sagebrush rangeland, towering slabs of mountains and wet meadows teeming with wildlife. Here in the high desert, a collaborative process of land-use planning has forged strong relationships between people with backgrounds that range from environmental activism and cattle ranching to birding enthusiasts and botanists. Together, they have pioneered a model of cooperative management of federal land that has made partners out of adversaries who, in other parts of the state, are more likely to end up on opposite ends of a lawsuit.
Ammon Bundy’s political arguments – that the federal government ignores the concerns of ranchers and makes ranching a dying way of life – resonated with some in this rural community. But most locals have personal relationships with the amorphous “feds” Bundy referred to in his daily news conferences. Nearly half of the county’s residents work for the local or federal government. The families of some of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife employees on the refuge have lived in Harney County for generations.
Bundy, who is not a rancher but does run a vehicle maintenance service in the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, based his decision to use Harney County as a test case to spread his movement on a shallow understanding of the community.
“When I first heard about the occupation, I was really sad because they basically hijacked the narrative out here for their own narrow political purposes,” Bob Sallinger, the conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, said. Sallinger is also a participant in the collaborative process that led to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
In 2005, Harney County rancher Gary Marshall and refuge manager Chad Karges founded the High Desert Partnership – a group dedicated to facilitating a process of listening and cooperative land-use planning between ranchers, environmentalists and the government. The nonprofit was the key to getting people who hadn’t spoken in decades to the table in order to come up with the refuge conservation plan.
Collaboration transformed local land-use politics from a stagnant process where litigation reigned and very few actionable decisions were ever made to one that rebuilt eroded community bonds and sparked novel resolutions to contentious issues.
“It’s always interesting to really sit down with somebody and truly figure out where they are coming from as a person,” Karges said. “And they get to understand what you’re thinking as well. They’re not just a rancher. They’re not just a conservationist. They are a person. And once you build that trust, then you begin to find unique solutions for some of these long-standing problems we’ve been dealing with because nobody ever thought to have that conversation.
“Going into these processes, you always have some idea in the back of your mind about what the outcome is probably to look like. But I’ve found that it never turns out to be what you thought and it’s usually better than you ever could have imagined.”
During a visit to the refuge in March, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Director Dan Ashe estimated that it will take at least three years and $6 million to fix the ecological damage caused by the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But those involved say the 41-day occupation could have been even more detrimental.
Standing at a viewpoint high above the refuge’s meadows, refuge ecologist Jess Wenick said the community had created a buffer against Bundy’s attempt to spearhead a political movement through years of listening, compromise and shared success.
“Without all that relationship-building, we could have very well been a militia stronghold at this point,” Wenick said.
Miel Corbett, deputy assistant regional director of migratory birds for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said in an interview that there is a spirit of connection in the Harney County that Bundy didn’t count on.
“The division in this community was significantly reduced during the occupation because we know each other and we trust each other,” Corbett said.
And ranchers here know the government will hold up its end of any bargain because they have years of experience telling them exactly that.
Dan Nichols, a local rancher and Harney County commissioner with a thick white moustache, said ranchers had gradually grown to trust local federal employees during the years of negotiations that led to the refuge conservation plan.
“It’s kind of intangible to some people why things have changed in the last 20 years, but it’s largely due to the collaborative process at the refuge and the ability to have a voice in something,” Nichols told Courthouse News. “And that was the big thing. Not everybody locally participated, but still they had somewhat of a voice in how it would be managed into the future. And that kind of took away some of our concerns.”
But not everyone is satisfied with the process.
A logger and life-long resident of Harney County who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he dropped out of the collaborative meetings after other participants vetoed the logging of ponderosa pine trees that are larger than 21 inches in diameter.
He said logging should be allowed on all sizes of trees, because they are dying from drought and pine beetle infestations. He asked not to be named because of concerns that criticizing the collaborative process could have a negative effect on the government contracts he needs.
“We’ve got thousands of acres of dead forest,” he said. “We should be able to utilize them, but we just let them die. When you only take a certain diameter of tree, what you’re doing is creating is a uniform forest. That would be like killing everybody under the age of 50 and letting the rest try to survive. They’d get old and die and that’s what trees do, whether from bugs or fire. But if you take some small trees and some big ones, you’re making a healthier forest.”
The logger said he was too frustrated to continue to participate.
“It’s a lot of talk, in my opinion, nothing actually getting done.”
And Suckling, with the Center for Biological Diversity, warned against an overly rosy view that the collaboration will fend off the next militia takeover. He said that while the collaborative effort in Harney County is a good step, but it’s not the whole answer.
“Collaboration is not going to prevent another standoff because these are the crazies and they don’t care about reason,” Suckling said. “But it could help the communities withstand that onslaught.”
Years of cooperation and trust protected Harney County from an influx of extremism, and that slowed the spread of a dangerous movement that threatened nothing less than the democratic process, according to Ryan Lenz, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch blog.
“At the root of everything that the Bundys and their adherents and the militias that support them were about was this idea of ‘liberty,’ but what that ultimately meant to them was that the system of law that democracy depends on should be thwarted or denied,” Lenz said. “Its legitimacy was questioned. That was not simply a rhetorical threat. Lawlessness is not synonymous with liberty. Courts matter. We have a system of courts put in place to enforce laws. And we have a system of people, of elected representatives who we have agreed can speak for us. And because of that, we have a system of democracy.”
Lenz acknowledged that the First Amendment protects Bundy’s right to say almost anything he wants. But he said Bundy’s message had a real effect in the world.
“Rhetoric does lead to acts of violence,” Lenz said. “It’s not just words. We have seen again and again that these words can lead to acts of violence among those less stable.”
A Process that Created a Deep Well of Mutual Trust
During a recent visit to Harney County, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the collaborative process forged at Malheur a “model” that she wants to spread throughout the American West.
Jewell said the reality of life in Harney County contradicts Bundy’s script of feds versus ranchers.
“I think what you’ve shown here is that it’s not us and them,” Jewell said. “It’s all us. And we’re all working together for many more common purposes than cross-purposes.”
Jewell promised to help clear the path for more voices to participate in land-management decisions.
“We were absolutely talking about the thought of ‘Is there something I can or should do from a secretarial order that would provide an expectation of collaboration? Is that helpful?'” Jewell said. “We don’t want to do that from top down, because there is enough criticism about top-down decisions, but what you want to do is have that be a collaborative process where I can say, ‘What is getting in your way of collaboration? What are the barriers we can knock down?’ And then we can go about knocking down those barriers.
“There’s also an opportunity to showcase the good things about what happened here, so people can then form their own path about what’s right for their county and what shape that collaboration takes,” she added.
One threat that almost killed the collaborative process in Harney County was grazing on the refuge.
For ranchers, grazing on the refuge is a financial imperative. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it improves habitat. But environmentalists say grazing has no place on a bird refuge.
Nichols said he and other ranchers fought to be able to graze their cattle seasonally on the wet meadows of the refuge. Grazing on federal land is cheaper than on either state or private land. The cost has not increased since the 1970s, and Nichols said that’s a key component to the survival of Harney County’s struggling ranching economy.
And while ranchers and the Fish & Wildlife Service say grazing helps keep invasive grasses at bay and ultimately creates better bird habitat, environmentalists disagree. But they decided to allow grazing in the fall and to collect extensive data on the effects of grazing in the refuge.
Nichols said the process has helped locals feel that the federal government is listening to them.
“As a rancher, I had a vested interest in resolving the conflict that’s been going on for years between the disputing factions about how we ought to use our public lands,” Nichols said. “It’s relieved some of the pressure by giving one outlet for people to speak their mind and be involved.”
For the Audubon Society of Portland’s Bob Sallinger, there was plenty at stake over the management of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Audubon Society was founded soon after Theodore Roosevelt established the refuge in 1908, specifically to help protect the fledgling refuge.
Back then, birds at Malheur were decimated by public appetites for hats covered in exotic plumage. Now, there are different threats – habitat loss, invasive-grass species that choke out native grasses and, perhaps most significantly, the non-native carp that proliferate in the refuge’s system of lakes and wetlands, gobbling up native plants and insects and utterly changing the landscape that migrating birds depend on.
And though grazing on refuge land may not be ideal, Sallinger said there was enough to gain from working together – and from mutual understanding of the differing perspectives at play – to justify compromise.
“We really took the time to get to know each other and each other’s issues,” Sallinger said. “And I think part of it was that after spending that time, we found some real opportunities where we agreed. In some ways, those outweighed the places where we disagreed.”
Refuge ecologist Jess Wenick said the agreement to let ranchers continue to graze in the refuge has allowed environmentalists to collect key data on the practice.
“Grazing was probably going to end up in litigation for the refuge,” Wenick said in an interview. “But through this process, those who weren’t comfortable with grazing allowed the program’s continuation based on ramping up the science that was going to go along with it. We started some very intensive monitoring to make sure that our objectives and our observations over the years and our beliefs over what it does on the ground actually play out with real data.”
Wenick said the collaborative agreements made ranchers with permits to graze on the refuge just as invested as environmentalists as to whether the data shows that grazing is working.
“During the occupation, I received calls from two different permitees,” Wenick said. “They were concerned about, if the occupation continues, will the data be collected in both the treated and untreated meadows? Because they are wanting that data collected just as much as, say, Portland Audubon and The Wetlands Conservancy.”
But nobody called Wenick during the occupation to claim an allegiance with Bundy.
“I have not heard from any permitee who agreed with what Ammon Bundy was saying about the refuge,” Wenick said.
And that level of investment is ultimately what kept Bundy from using Harney County as a prop to build his movement.
“The ground that we gained over the last decade definitely prevented the militia from succeeding,” Wenick said.
The group’s agreements accomplished more than just immediate economic and conservation goals, Sallinger said.
“It also sets a framework for working through the places where we still disagree. It allows for the trust and the creativity that will help us move through those things maybe in a less contentious way in the future.
“There are plenty of places I can look at and say that conflict has simply stopped progress altogether. You may be winning a philosophical battle, but are you actually improving the landscape? You may be right or wrong on the point you are making, but if you’re not making progress on the ground, it doesn’t matter.”
Wenick agreed, noting that people with vastly differing ideologies were together able to forge a working management plan.
“There was a level of trust that I had never seen before in a public process like this,” Wenick said. “To where even if you couldn’t see eye-to-eye, you could still talk it out. There always seemed to be a way through it.”
He’s Not a Cowboy, He Just Plays One on the News
That model – of listening intently to those with opposing viewpoints and prioritizing action on shared goals over hollow political pronouncements – stands in stark contrast to the actions of Ammon Bundy, an outsider who tries to cram his own ideology down locals’ throats and claims he’s doing it for them.
At the refuge headquarters in March, Ashe told reporters that locals had made their opposition to the occupation clear.
“During the occupation we heard people saying to the occupiers, ‘Listen, we may have grievances with the government, but we have a way to work them out,'” Ashe said.
The message made it from remote Harney County to Washington. But somehow, Bundy never heard it. Or maybe he just disregarded it. During the standoff, he repeatedly told press and local officials like Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward that local ranchers were being “ignored” by the government.
“There becomes a time when people are ignored to where they are frustrated and they don’t know what to do,” Bundy said at a press conference early in the occupation. “They see an injustice, but all levels of government are ignoring that. And the prudent methods are not allowed to be productive. And that is when the people have a right to take a hard stand. And that is what we did.”
When locals called for the occupation to end, Bundy just changed his message to say his “supporters” in Harney County were too scared of government reprisals to speak up.
“Their ideology wouldn’t allow them to admit that the people wouldn’t want them to be there,” Suckling said. “The level of delusion was incredible. They decided that the people must be too afraid speak up and therefore we have to protect them.”
Initially, Bundy claimed he would pack up his standoff and head out if locals said they didn’t want him there. But during a man-to-man meeting with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward on a deserted stretch of snowy highway, Ward told Bundy the community wanted him out.
Bundy refused to go.
“We’re being ignored again,” Bundy told Ward.
The two men stood facing each other with the vast range spread out behind them. Bundy wore a cowboy hat. Ward’s gold sheriff’s badge gleamed on his chest. A scene straight from a spaghetti western, playing out in real life.
“Enough is enough when there is actual action happening,” Bundy told reporters after the meeting. “And we’ll know when that is.”
But like a movie, Bundy’s lines were fictional – at least according to Andy Dunbar, whose ranch borders the refuge.
After all that collaboration, Dunbar said it was a shock for an outsider to show up claiming to take over the refuge on behalf of ranchers when he clearly lacked actual knowledge of what it’s like to be a rancher in Harney County.
“It was like a slap in the face,” Dunbar said.
Bundy’s downfall was his ignorance of his true foe: the strong relationships between Harney County ranchers, environmentalists and local government employees. Those relationships were what kept Bundy from exploiting the historical differences between the groups.
“What ultimately led to this being the final saga in the Bundys’ story was that they were wrong,” HateWatch blog editor Lenz said. “They hoped they would storm this building with an uprising of local support and find massive evidentiary troves proving government malfeasance. What they found instead was nothing. And all they accomplished was the destruction of a cherished community space.
“And it was a flop. It was a strategic mistake to go that far. Because the idea that they hoped to plant in Oregon never bloomed, partially because the community didn’t want it and because the idea was flawed to begin with, but also because of tactics they chose.”
Bundy spent 41 days playing at the role of a political crusader. But he got the character of Harney County all wrong.
Even as presidential candidates trade insults about each other’s wives on Twitter, this sleepy rural community has shown that another type of political discourse is possible – even in an uncertain economic climate, and between people with fundamental disagreements on political priorities.
That’s a message that takes more than 140 characters to convey.
“Fear is easy to sell,” Secretary Jewell said. “It oversimplifies complexity and I think that we’ve seen a portion of our population that is reacting to simple messages. The reality is, what you’ve done here is not simple or easy, but it is real life. It’s a fact that things need to be in good balance. And it’s hard to communicate. It doesn’t lend itself to a quick social-media hit.
“But fear is easy to peddle. And don’t we see a lot of that being peddled right now?”
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