Three weeks into a tense standoff in eastern Oregon between armed antigovernment protesters and law enforcement, the number of players has unexpectedly enlarged. Offering a counterpoint, local residents, environmentalists, hikers, birders, and even a science-fiction legend have weighed in with a united message.
“Go home,” several townspeople told Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, as the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge sat stone-faced amid the yelling at a town meeting Tuesday. Where outsiders might see tough-looking Westerners, rifles shouldered, at loggerheads with brown-shirted rangers taking marching orders from Washington, residents say the narrative is far more complex.
The occupation of the bird refuge began Jan. 2 after a rally in support of the Hammonds, a father-son ranching duo sentenced to five years in federal prison for arson on federal lands. The sentence was deeply unpopular locally – one state judge called it “unconscionable” – but the Hammonds themselves peacefully reported to prison on Jan. 4 and began serving their sentences. The occupiers have so far shrugged off calls to leave, even though the local sheriff, Dave Ward, has told them "the hourglass is running." With 1990s-era tragedies at Waco and Ruby Ridge still in mind, federal authorities have given the Malheur occupiers leeway, so far making only one arrest when a protester drove a federal vehicle to a grocery store for supplies.
Many in the rural West actually appreciate Mr. Bundy’s political message: that seemingly arbitrary federal management has fueled the gradual impoverishment of America’s most remote and isolated towns. Bundy’s answer: turn public lands over to states, which many conservatives in the rural West believe are more capable than Washington of both managing and protecting them.
But to many others, the Malheur men are putting on political theater that paints their fellow Westerners in a poor light and disregards – and even undermines – the approach favored by many who seek to reshape the West’s future without a revolution.
“In a way, it’s really a gift to us, what [the Oregon occupiers] are doing,” says Gina Knudson, an Idaho conservationist and contributor to Writers on the Range. “Nobody was paying attention to this before. Now, given the fact that the Bundys don’t get a lot of sympathy from folks out here, it’s forcing us to have a conversation of, ‘What would we do that’s smarter than that?’ ”
In fact, she and others say, it’s already being done.
Even as frustrations boil and complaints remain entrenched, many places in the rural West have begun to address economic questions more seriously, sometimes making major headway on difficult issues through compromise and bipartisan legislative fixes.
A time to choose
“I think this is a national moment where we have to choose whether we’re going to fight with each other or talk to each other,” says John Reuter of Conservation Voters for Idaho.
In Utah, the Western Energy Alliance, a group representing corporations that pull wealth from the public’s land, applauded a congressional compromise that carves out 2.2 million acres of federal wilderness while allowing some concessions on access roads – one of the most contentious issues between local environmentalists and energy companies for many areas in the West. Critics claim the plan is a give-away to industry, creating "pseudo-wilderness" areas where cows can still graze.
The negotiations showed that “collaboration and compromise can work, even on very contentious public-lands issues,” says Kathleen Sgamma, the group’s vice president of government affairs. From the point of view of people who live and work in the rural West, she says, opposition to the deal from outside environmentalists suggests that residents there are inconsequential.
“You can’t just take away their livelihood and treat them as if they don’t matter, as if someone writing form letters in San Francisco has more skin in the game than somebody actually living in that area,” says Ms. Sgamma.
In Montana, a group called Rocky Mountain Front worked for nearly a decade to see President Obama last year sign a bipartisan conservation management agreement, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, aimed at making the land more active and working while also reserving vast wilderness areas. The law epitomized a bipartisan, bottom-up approach that saw “public lands as part of the solution,” says Jessica Goad, of the Center for Western Priorities, in Denver.
Free the land or hold it hostage?
When Ms. Knudson looks out her window, she surveys a majestic and mountain-topped watershed that brings together the Salmon River. The Bundys, she says, represent the harshness of the land, and how mean it can be. But that’s not how most of those who willingly live in America’s roughest corners see it, she argues.
“Just like reporters who come to look for the ugliest depiction of community that they can find, the Bundys look at the people in the federal government and see that same ugliness,” says Knudson. “But that is certainly not what we experience here.”
Nor is the us (Westerners) versus them (outside government agents) as clear-cut as the Bundys might paint it. In many rural Western towns, the federal wildlife agent or US forest ranger is a neighbor and friend. And plenty of Oregon nature lovers and environmentalists have stepped forward this week to question the Malheur occupiers’ claim that they are representing the interests of local residents.
Ursula Le Guin, science fiction grand master and author of the beloved Earthsea fantasy series, made the point forcefully. “Ammon Bundy and his bullyboys aren’t trying to free federal lands, but to hold them hostage. I can’t go to the Malheur refuge now, though as a citizen of the United States, I own it and have the freedom of it,” she wrote in a letter to The Oregonian. “That’s what public land is: land that belongs to the public – me, you, every law-abiding American. The people it doesn’t belong to and who don’t belong there are those who grabbed it by force of arms, flaunting their contempt for the local citizens.”
For many such Westerners, the transfer of public lands is a red herring. The fact is, there are vast stretches of land where not a soul lives. And there are undeniable national interests in the resource-rich ranges, including the booming potential of so-called ecosystem services – replacing miners with tour guides.
'The Old West is gone'
More important, the region’s economy is marching inexorably forward. For one, it’s America’s fastest-growing region, ballooning by 21 percent between 2003 and 2013. If you like to brag about being a magnet for young people, the West’s the best, according to Forbes, containing the highest percentage of people under 20 in the US. Wide open spaces aside, its population is remarkably urban, given that 89 percent of Westerners live in places like Bozeman, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; and Colorado Springs, Colo.
Given a national rethink of the extraction economy and demographic shifts that have begun to tip the West into a different economic framework, “the Old West is gone, and it isn’t coming back,” writes New Yorker economics writer James Surowiecki.
But that fact has not resolved a divide as steep as a Utah slot canyon, says Chris Mehl, a city commissioner in Bozeman and a policy analyst for Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group focusing on Western land issues.
The urban West may be booming, and so are “connected counties” that have broadband and an airport.
But that leaves 5 percent of Westerners who live, nearly alone, on nearly half the West’s lands, much of them under federal management. Those “isolated” counties are the ones clawing the hardest for survival. Driven by such despair, the West’s poverty has only deepened in relation to other cash-strapped corners of the country, especially the Deep South, according to census figures.
“There hasn’t been a real moment of, ‘Wow, what does the world look like economically today for the rural West? Where is the job creation likely to come from, and how do we work with these communities to help them do well?’” says Mr. Mehl. “Yeah, they’re only 5 percent of the population, but they’re a huge part of our geography. And every citizen is important, right?”
To be sure, as the protesters argue, federal policy around timber, endangered animals, and access roads has at times hurt the already-fragile economies of the rural West. But the fate of the West has, almost from the very beginning of the country, been tied to Washington.
After all, the federal government has guided the West’s future ever since young men and women started clambering toward the Continental Divide. President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, giving any would-be pioneer 160 acres of public land in the West, as long as they were willing to stay at least five years.
“We’re talking about federal policies here going all the way back to the Homestead Act, where the Feds have subsidized everything from transportation to farming,” says Mehl. “In other words, we helped to create these small towns as a nation. The question now is, what do we owe these communities?”
In Salmon, Idaho, Knudson has watched ranchers and public land managers begin hammering out good-faith deals that address both the national interest in preserving the biological and geological treasures of the West, as well as the need for those who want to stay and live off the land to have more predictability.
One such moment, she says, happened Tuesday night at the Cattlemen’s Winter School, a state continuing education project, in Idaho’s Lemhi County.
There, representatives from the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service talked to a group of ranchers about changes coming under new federal protections for sage grouse, whose mating habits conflict with the herding of cattle across the range. The talk was brisk, matter-of-fact, but also collaborative.
“Those are the conversations that are taking place in Salmon and Harney County [the site of the Oregon occupation], where ranchers are sitting down and really trying to understand what’s good for the bird, meaning the sage grouse, and public land managers are saying, ‘We know you guys can do this. If you know what the standards are, you can meet it,’ ” says Knudson. “Those are the kinds of conversations that will move us forward.”