The land out here is vast, in some places stretching as far as the eye can see in between homes, towns, any signs of humanity. It is rugged and dry, and holds a sense of emptiness, of loneliness. But to the observant wanderer, it is in fact a place full of life, from the twisted juniper trees to the strange-colored lichens spreading over the ground. One can find traces of the animals that have passed through, coyote scat, rabbit tracks, the remnants of a cougar kill up in a tree, huge bird nests up in the craggy cliff bands. And, of course, the evidence of people, shotgun shells, broken glass, old appliances, and cows.
People seem to have a habit of taking what they have for granted until threatened with its loss. It is certainly true when it comes to land use. We have a long history of over-use, it is evident in any industry that involves using or extracting natural resources. It begins with discovery, then fortunes are made, and more and more people jump on board, and then, the resource begins to run out. That is the point at which people either destroy the resource altogether, or take steps to protect and manage it.
It is undeniable that humans impact the environment, our proliferation around the world has clearly changed the land. It is also undeniable that natural resources are required for our survival. We need food, water, shelter, just like every species. And this need, and all the times we’ve allowed it to devolve into excessive over-use of resources, along with the desire to protect what we don’t want to lose, has left us with a decades-old, emotional, sometimes violent debate.
Once again, this debate has exploded out of its usual confines of rural America and into the national spotlight with the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife refuge in Harney County. Ignoring the very basic fact that nature seeks balance, the media is frantically fueling the polarizing rhetoric. Either you are an angry, spoiled white guy with lots of guns attempting to grab all of the public land, or you are against the occupation and want the spoiled white guys arrested, maybe even bombed with drones. Few seem willing to pause long enough in the argument to really listen to each other. Just what is the beef with Federal land management?
The situation in Harney County presents a good starting place to look at this question because there is a long history of problems there. Anyone who has paid any attention to the story of the refuge occupation knows that it began with a protest rally in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced for arson under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act for starting two fires on their land that spread to BLM land, burning a total of 140 acres. The group occupying the refuge want the Hammonds freed from prison, among other things. The Hammonds’ battle with the BLM has been going on for decades, long before they lit the two fires that got them branded as terrorist arsons. And they aren’t alone.
Many from the area claim that there have been numerous attempts to get ranchers off of their private lands over the years. According to Ammon Bundy, some of those attempts included reducing the number of grazing permits from 53 to 21, raising grazing fees, and even deliberately flooding Malheur, Harney and Mud Lakes to force ranchers from the lands around the lakes. The lakes did flood in the early eighties, causing an estimated $32 million in damage in 1984. According to The New York Times:
‘Twenty-seven families have been flooded out as the lakes’ level has risen about 12 feet over the last three years,’ said William H. Beal, Harney County’s water master.
I haven’t found any evidence to support Bundy’s claim that the US Fish and Wildlife Service deliberately flooded the lakes somehow, but the solution sought by the ranchers to make a flood-relief canal to lower the levels in the lakes was ultimately dismissed. Again from the above New York Times article:
Harney County officials want to deepen and widen the old waterway to the Malheur River and use it as a flood-relief canal, timing the releases to minimize flood danger downstream. Mr. Beal said the canal would cost $8 million to $12 million.
The Army Corps of Engineers said two years ago that the economic benefits would far outweigh the cost of the canal.
In the end, after another study by the Army Corps of Engineers, in a reversal from their previous statement, the canal was ruled out as its benefits would not outweigh the costs of construction, or possible detrimental effects on the river from the influx of lake waters. This study goes into much more detail about the different ideas for mitigating the flood damage and resolving the problem. I can see why local residents might feel as though their needs, and solution ideas, were disregarded, and perhaps that has led to Ammon’s claim.
As for the Hammonds, Ammon Bundy writes this:
In the early 1990’s the Hammonds filed on a livestock water source and obtained a deed for the water right from the State of Oregon. When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found out that the Hammonds obtained new water rights near the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge, they were agitated and became belligerent and vindictive towards the Hammonds. The US Fish and Wildlife Service challenged the Hammonds right to the water in an Oregon State Circuit Court. The court found that the Hammonds legally obtained rights to the water in accordance to State law and therefore the use of the water belongs to the Hammonds.*In August 1994 the BLM & FWS illegally began building a fence around the Hammonds water source. Owning the water rights and knowing that their cattle relied on that water source daily the Hammonds tried to stop the building of the fence.
Grazing fees are a hotly disputed issue. The low fees charged by the federal government for ranchers to graze their herds on public lands is often described as a subsidy because it is lower than private land owners charge for grazing rights, and it doesn’t cover the costs of managing those lands where the grazing occurs.
Wildlife advocates have long criticized the low price for grazing fees on public lands, calling it an effective subsidy to a fraction of the ranching industry. Generally, grazing fees returns only a fraction of the money the Federal government spends to manage public lands grazing: less than a sixth in 2004, according to the General Accounting Office .
[Read more of that article here on the argument for raising fees.]
According to this:
The Federal grazing fee for 2015 will be $1.69 per animal unit month (AUM) for public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and $1.69 per head month (HM) for lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The 2014 fee was $1.35.
…if ranchers are priced off federal rangelands, the government would have to build hundreds of thousands of miles of fences to keep cattle from trespassing onto federal land. In the Eastern states, a cattle owner is responsible for putting a fence around his land to keep his cattle in, and is liable to his neighbors if his cattle escape and trespass onto the neighbors’ land. However, in most Western states, a landowner who fails to put a fence around his own land may not recover for trespass if other people’s cattle come onto his land because the landowner is legally responsible for fencing the cattle out. Billions for fences. No one knows precisely how many miles of fencing the federal government would have to build. Because federal land in most Western states is interspersed with private land in a checkerboard pattern, however, the amount of fencing required would be enormous. In one grazing district in Wyoming alone, the BLM estimates that it will have to put up 13,222 miles of fencing at a cost of almost $98 million if cattle grazing is discontinued because of excessive fees.
On top of all of that, we can’t forget fire. It’s no secret that forest fire management policies over the past century have led to dangerous conditions throughout the western United States. The idea that all forest fires are bad, and must be extinguished immediately has left forests and rangelands loaded with fuel. When fires start, they burn hotter and longer, causing greater damage to the land, and they are much harder to contain. In the sweeping sage brush country of eastern Oregon, prescribed burns were used as a means to improve grazing lands and reduce Juniper trees, preventing a build up of fuel and lowering the risk of catastrophic fires. According to this article by Carrie Stadheim:
[Erin] Maupin, who resigned from the BLM in 1999, said that collaborative burns between private ranchers and the BLM had become popular in the late 1990s because local university extension researchers were recommending it as a means to manage invasive juniper that steal water from grass and other cover
‘In 1999, the BLM started to try to do large scale burn projects. We started to be successful on the Steens Mountain especially when we started to do it on a large watershed scale as opposed to trying to follow property lines.’
Because private and federal land is intermingled, collaborative burns were much more effective than individual burns that would cover a smaller area, Maupin said.
Like the Hammonds’ fires, these prescribed burns, as well as fires lit as back-burns while fighting wild fires, haven’t always stayed within their intended boundaries. Again from Stadheim’s article:
During her tenure as a full time BLM employee from 1997-1999, Maupin recalls other fires accidentally spilling over onto BLM land, but only the Hammonds have been charged, arrested and sentenced, she said. Ranchers might be burning invasive species or maybe weeds in a ditch. ‘They would call and the BLM would go and help put it out and it was no big deal.’
On the flip side, Maupin remembers numerous times that BLM-lit fires jumped to private land. Neighbors lost significant numbers of cattle in more than one BLM fire that escaped intended containment lines and quickly swallowed up large amounts of private land. To her knowledge, no ranchers have been compensated for lost livestock or other loss of property such as fences.
Gary Miller, who ranches near Frenchglen, about 35 miles from the Hammonds’ hometown, said that in 2012, the BLM lit numerous backfires that ended up burning his private land, BLM permit, and killing about 65 cows.
Oregon Representative Greg Walden, in a strong statement to the U.S. House of Representatives after the refuge occupation began, had this to say about back-burns started by federal employees:
There was nobody sentenced under the terrorist laws there. Oh heck no, its the government, they weren’t sentenced, no one was charged.
Good point. Its no wonder the residents in Harney County, and Ammon Bundy, are suspicious of the motives behind charging the Hammonds for their fires by the federal government. It really doesn’t surprise me that there seems to be growing support for the occupation on the ground as residents of Harney County, and surrounding counties and states, see an opportunity to force these issues into the spotlight. And an opportunity to find solutions. And I think that makes the federal government increasingly nervous, and it shows in the media narrative.
It may be that it is simply too boring to report on the people on the ground, directly affected every day by the land use debate that is more vast than the land itself. Or, maybe reporting on their efforts to find balanced solutions to the problems doesn’t serve the purpose of the Federal government as it seeks to increase its control. Reporting on the reality on the ground might expose a widening crack in that control as the people are re-discovering that they don’t need the federal government to solve their problems for them.
Don’t miss “What’s The Beef, Part Two: How Lawsuits Shape Land Management Policies.” Read it here.
Another note: just as I finished this, I learned the news that Ammon Bundy and three others have been arrested after an incident involving shots fired while they were on the way to a meeting in John Day, Oregon.