1.27.2016

The Sad (but Necessary) Outcome of the Oregon Standoff

Like many modern public controversies, there is a lot of complexity to the standoff that is now coming to a close in rural Oregon after almost a month of tension, intimidation, and public posturing. For many outside of Oregon, the perception of the state is directly influenced by shows like Portlandia and the bizarre news that frequently trickles out of what is, admittedly, an idiosyncratic place. 

What many aren't familiar with is the state's unbelievable diversity. There are arid high deserts in the eastern portion of the state and temperate rain forests west of the Cascades, which are themselves a series of active volcanoes. There are imposing mountain peaks, ancient sand dunes, coastal estuaries, and fertile plains. In short, the state is home to many diverse ecosystems, and the inhabitants of those various areas are just as diverse--politically, culturally, and socially. Folks think of Oregon as a haven of liberalism, and it often votes that way because of the large population centers in the Willamette Valley. But, there are also many areas of extreme conservatism. Eastern and southern Oregon are two of these regions, and these are sparsely populated agricultural areas in which a healthy distrust of government at almost any level runs strictly counter to the ethos in the valley.

The planned occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was not carried out by Oregonians, though there was definitely local sympathy for some aspects of the ridiculous aims of this cadre of self-styled patriots from Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. While many of these dangerous nuts were merely comical caricatures, there was a real sense of intimidation and fear in the close-knit community of Burns, Oregon.

The MNWR has been a federal steward of the land for decades in that part of the country, and many ranchers rely on its careful management to facilitate sustainable grazing permits for their cattle. The MNWR is also home to thousands of artifacts and archaeologically significant sites for the Burns Paiute Tribe, which voiced opposition to the federal government's handling of this standoff on multiple occasions.

The fact is, issues of conservation/utility, public/private, and federal/local have always been at the forefront of life in rural Oregon. I enjoyed my formative years in John Day, where militants had planned another session of public rabble-rousing before one of their leaders was shot and killed while charging at Oregon State Police. My father was a federal forester in a town with two sawmills--a place where federal logging restrictions created tension among the citizens that simmered up around dinner tables on on school playgrounds. 

Environmental terrorism has flourished in Oregon for decades, existing right alongside deeply held, hands-off conservatism; this has made for an often volatile public debate over how to use the state's abundant natural resources. 

My point here is that some of the tangential issues related to this stand-off merit scrutiny and public discussion. I say this as someone who believes in the stewardship of public lands, in environmental conservation, and in socially responsible employment. There needs to be a balance, and all sides of this argument have a different idea of what that balance should look like. 

But these gun-toting outsiders should never have been the face of change for creating this forum. None-too-bright and frequently unemployed, they came to Oregon with bad (and treasonous) intentions. Were they there for personally held beliefs, or to operate as the tip of the spear for the radical and dangerous beliefs espoused by the likes of the Koch brothers?

Again, many of the ranchers in the area have worked very productively with the BLM and MNWR for decades:
"It was interesting the number of ranchers who said, 'Why would we do that? Things are working pretty well. And we've been here 100 years. My grandfather was here. Take over public lands? Why would I want to take on that enormous expense when I can simply benefit from the government taking that on?'"
I graduated from Pendleton High School before heading out west to Linfield. One of my first jobs was working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, picking up peas on a combine at a farm out in Adams, Oregon. I rounded dinner tables with ranchers and farmers and cowboys for years. I watched as these battles played out in communities throughout our state. The fact is, there are legitimate issues to resolve as government, industry, citizens, and environmentalists work together to find a productive balance for Oregon.

But these protesters from out of state never had that in mind. 

They merely wanted publicity for a set of beliefs that even those in rural Oregon found abhorrent. And when they stated that they would leave and the citizens of Burns asked them to go, they lied and went back on their word. Ultimately, one has to ask: Did they want to become martyrs? The Koch brothers spent $122 million dollars trying to defeat Obama in 2012. They lost that battle, but I don't think their largess splashed blood on their hands. 

I'm not sure the same can be said for what happened yesterday in a narrow canyon between Burns and John Day.

I'm glad the Bundys are in jail. I'm glad the Paiutes will regain access to their lands. I'm glad that the MNWR's seventeen employees can (eventually) get back to their objectives of stewardship. I'm glad the people of Burns can feel safe in their town again, and that Oregon's state police can feel more comfortable about pulling over trucks with out-of-state plates again.

I hope things get back to some semblance of normalcy in that part of the world, and that productive talks about how to use the land create conditions where farcical political stunts like this one won't lead to bloodshed, intimidation, and treason in the future. 

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