Claiming What Was Never Theirs
If the Presidential debates haven't given you your fix of vitriol, mean-spiritedness and twisted facts, take some time to read about the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. Gun-toting insurgents lay claim to land to which they have no legal right. At first glance, it looks like a headline from Iraq or Syria, not Oregon. But like so many battles over resources, the story is complicated.
To better understand the nature of the dispute, we need to understand a few things about public lands in the Western United States. Harney County, Oregon, like many regions of the West, has a great deal of land owned and controlled by the federal government. A great many national parks and national forests are included among these federal lands, but Malheur is part of the wildlife refuge system overseen by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. National forests, under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture, and rangeland overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are also found in this part of Oregon and neighboring states.
The rangelands of this region are semi-arid environments and their carry capacity for grazing is limited. It is much easier to overgraze pasture land in such dry places because the grasses grow slowly. Congress recognized the challenges connected of preserving this arid range land and passed several laws to facilitate their management going as far back as 1934. The laws charged the BLM with figuring out how much grazing should be permitted on these lands while preserving the long-term health of the soil and grasslands. Not surprisingly, as a referee and landlord, the BLM has managed to perturb both ranchers and environmentalists, sometimes at the same time.
Two families have been at center of the firestorms (both literal and figurative) in Harney County. Locals Dwight and Steve Hammond were convicted on arson charges in connection with the setting of wildfires after disagreeing with the BLM over rangeland management and related controlled burning practices. Those convictions prompted three sons of embattled anti-government Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, to mount a protest, ultimately taking control of the wildlife refuge shortly after New Year's. The Bundys had gotten in trouble with the BLM over back payments due on grazing permits totaling upwards of a million dollars after refusing to sign agreements. Those politically sympathetic to the Bundys thought these actions were part of a long term trend to tell ranchers how they should use the land.
It turned out that a large portion of those living near the refuge didn't share the occupiers' extremist positions. Most interviewed about the siege just wanted the protesters to leave so the community and wildlife refuge could get back to normal. Two weeks ago, one of the protesters was killed in a confrontation when agents attempted to arrest occupiers who had left the refuge. The protesters felt strongly that control of these federal lands should be "returned" to the people, despite that fact that nearly all BLM lands had never been privately owned. In a tale of contradictions and ironies, this stance might have been the most ironic. For the original owners were the Paiute Indians.
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