Armed Oregon occupation: Is it really about white poverty in the West?

Ammon Bundy says that federal land management practices are pushing more people into poverty, highlighting a serious rural economic problem. 

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Ammon Bundy meets with members of the Pacific Patriots Network at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 8, 2016. Saturday's takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, marked the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual rights.

If you thought the armed occupation of a federal bird refuge in Oregon was simply a battle over land rights, think again.

This week, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the group, complained that Westerners are helpless against a federal foe that is “literally putting [people] into poverty.”

To be sure, since their take-over of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last weekend, Mr. Bundy and his group have struggled to elicit sympathy and support. But by reframing the issue, Bundy may find a wider audience. And he's right: Poverty in the American West is rising even as it has fallen in the Deep South. 

By raising the plight of poor, mostly white Americans languishing under the thumb of federal land managers provides a poignant insight into recent economic trends as well as a centuries-old fight over land use in the west, one which could, some say, provide these Western range riders common cause with other groups of marginalized Americans.

After all, America’s unresolved debate over federal management of nearly half the land in Western states  – some quarter billion acres, in all, including 87 percent of Nevada – has increasingly come to focus on one stark fact of federal stewardship: As leaders in Washington – including President Obama – have taken a harder line on protecting public lands from loggers, miners, ranchers and others who wish to use it for profit, poverty in the rural West has intensified even as poverty has lifted in the Deep South.

Bundy’s comments are “really the first time [since the Great Depression] where rural people are talking about their fear of poverty and their experience of poverty,” says Catherine McNicol Stock, a Connecticut College historian and author of “Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain.” “White people don’t want to talk about being poor or a small town in Kansas being a white ghetto – nobody’s going to use those terms. What’s remarkable is that these guys are actually saying ‘impoverishment’ and blaming it on government, as opposed to broader structures in society.”

The Bundys, however, may be imperfect messengers.

After all, a big piece of their beef with the federal government is personal, stemming from allegations that Cliven Bundy, the family’s patriarch back in Utah, has refused to pay the federal government over a million dollars in grazing fees. That conflict led to an armed 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Utah, from which federal agents backed off.

What spurred the current standoff is the sentencing of two members of the Hammond ranching family to five years in prison, even after a state judge deemed such a sentence cruel and “unconscionable.” Like much of Burns, the Hammonds have distanced themselves from the Malheur takeover, complaining about what one columnist dubbed “imported rebels.”

On Thursday, Bundy met with Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who asked Bundy to heed the will of locals and leave. Bundy declined. 

Yet the decision by the protesters in Oregon to attempt to redefine the terms of the land debate to one of civil rights – Mr. Bundy invoked Rosa Parks before saying that “we realize we have to act if we want to have anything left to pass down to our children” – is rooted, at least in part, in economic and demographic trends.

Fifty years ago, half of the poor in America lived in the Deep South, a figure that dropped to 41 percent in 2010. Over the same time frame, the West’s share of the nation’s low-income population climbed from 11 percent to 23 percent – remarkable, given that more counties in the West today have fewer than two people per square mile than in 1890.

“Rebellion does seem in order,” writes Joseph Taylor III, for Reuters. “It’s just not Ammon Bundy’s version.” But, he adds, more “Bundy-like spectacles” are likely, given that “they have been occurring for two centuries, and nothing to date has resolved the underlying grievances, many of which are real, legitimate, and fundamental to any lasting resolution.”

As the group on Saturday once again vowed to stay until the feds cede local grazing lands back to the state, there’s evidence that political support for their cause - if not their methods - is growing.

Western legislatures filed 37 bills in 11 states in 2015 pushing for transfer of much of the federal land back to states, as Bundy has demanded in Harney County. A recent report by the Center for Western Priorities shows how a coalition of right-wing extremists, timber companies, and conservative lawmakers have invoked the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s to push for more local regulatory control of valuable land.

Complaints are often localized, but tie into a common refrain.

Oregon resident Joseph Fine told the Wall Street Journal that his parents were forced to quit ranching in the 1980s because federal officials curtailed access to critical grazing lands. "They want to turn it all over for birds instead of cattle," he told the paper.

According to polls, that's fine with most Westerners. Nine out of 10 Westerners surveyed in 2013 by Colorado College said national parks and wildlife preserves are boons to the economy, while only 35 percent said public lands should be made available for "responsible energy development. 

Moreover, federal subsidies and government jobs help keep many towns afloat, and low grazing fees have helped make many ranchers wealthy.

And federal land managers say that, with exceptions, they have managed to reach compromise with local stake holders on difficult issues.

“Our employees have been members of this community for over 100 years,” Jason Holm, the spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Malheur, told the Wall Street Journal. “We may not always agree, but we’ve worked directly with ranchers and landowners for mutually beneficial goals.”

Yet there’s no doubt that the American West is facing an existential quandary – one which directly contradicts what many see here as the pioneer spirit that, for generations, defined the nation.

As Ammon Bundy pointed out, Harney County, the site of the protest, has gone from Oregon’s wealthiest to its poorest since federal land management tightened in the 1970s. Its timber industry has been decimated under federal land use management.

“When 60, 70 or 80 percent of a county is federally controlled, and the federal policies prevent active management and use of those lands, the result is you have depressed economies, impoverished people, and a lack of hope,” says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, who represents Harney County.

San Juan County, Utah, sees 40 percent of its children born into families in persistent poverty – meaning that their conditions haven’t changed for more than three decades. Ninety-two percent of the county is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

“This is not about the Bundys, it’s not about the Hammond family, or about Burns, Ore. – they’re not creating the problem,” says Phil Lyman, a San Juan County, Utah, county commissioner who was convicted last year on charges related to a protest ATV ride through Recapture Canyon, closed in 2007 to protect the remains of an archaeological excavation. “The problem is what’s being created by these agencies that have no political accountability and no knowledge about the areas they’re affecting so dramatically. They have 100 percent control and zero responsibility. That’s a recipe for disaster. And that’s what’s happening.”

The big question for many is whether continued federal control of vast unpopulated regions is a stopgap measure or a final solution for the West. Many Westerners look at the former frontier states of Illinois and Missouri, which both lobbied for decades before Congress agreed to cede the land to the state government.

But instead of being rapidly populating states close to the East Coast, the Western states with majority federal land ownership are part of a larger emptying-out of the American heartland. Without a growing tax base, it’s questionable, critics say, whether states can even afford to manage the lands, or stem over-exploitation of some of the nation’s grandest natural treasures

Even some of those who sympathize with the Oregon [occupiers' demands] downplay the Transfer of Public Lands (TPL) movement. The percentage of federally-managed land “is not really the issue here,” Rep. Walden tells the Monitor. “The issue is better management, and more active local collaboration.”

“We are moving from economies that are based on resource extraction to economies based on knowledge and service, so that is providing a lot of growing pains as the region changes,” says Jessica Goad, whose progressive organization, the Center for Western Priorities, has started taking a closer look at the impact of federal management on poverty rates. “But we really need to consider more deeply: What does a just transition for rural America look like?”

Francine Kiefer contributed to this article from Washington, D.C. 

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