Returning to Malheur
“The dark space is ranching. Ranching’s realm is really, then, definable as being where most people are absent.” - Paul Starrs
In 2016 I received a phone call from a friend of a friend in Europe. A senior producer for a news network got on the line and explained we are not sure we know what is happening at the takeover in Oregon. Ummm I’m in Alabama at the moment. “But you are the only person we know that has a Mormon connection and understands cattle. Just take a look, we will pay you to go there now”. Mormons and cows, this much was true. An hour later my grandmother’s well noted book of Mormon, camera, dog and camping gear loaded, I headed to some remote place in Oregon in the dead of winter. The Malheur National Forest I read in-route was a bird sanctuary. I was familiar with eastern Oregon but had never been to Burns. Paiute country is bleak, cold this time of year and semi-desert. Why armed Mormons would be involved in seizing a bird refuge a mystery.
I have lived and worked in the mountain west since graduating college and studying Aldo Leopold. Coming from a multi-generational cattle operation in Alabama, western ranching is like comparing cane pole fishing to offshore marlin fishing. There is no comparison, other than the cows have four legs and eat grass. Mormons though are the same the world over.
When I reached Burns, I learned that Malheur was about 20 miles from town, so I checked into a hotel and set out at daylight the next day. There are places in the United States that remind you of what the West is. Harney County is such a place. Views spread out in all directions for up to a hundred miles. Peaks seem to anchor the land to the sky. If there is a place where ranching should be in this country, this is it. Ranching if you ever have been involved in it is what places those burgers at your McDonalds. It also to a degree is a war upon the native ecology of a place. The price we pay to eat boils down to manipulating the ecosystem of an area as efficiently as possible covert the sun’s energy into protein for human consumption. You can discuss bull trout, dung beetles and hyper-focus on preserving fire ant mounds all you wish but the bottom line is a big mac equals cow plus grass over a period time only God controls. Three variables that are unchanged over time and the fourth you could add is that America is not going to stop eating beef.
I believe the reason for the seizure of the wildlife refuge as a protest is often not told, because the media fails to understand what could have been learned in the first five minutes of approaching the protest. The media was reluctant understandably to walk up and introduce themselves to a group heavily armed men occupying a bird refuge. There is nothing conspiratorial about not wanting to approach armed men with assault rifles with only a pen and a camera. I get that, but I choose to do just that and give them a handshake, a copy of my id, a few references and showed them an email from a news producer. Check me out, I’ll be back, and when I did, they let me in. For a week or so I was just a fly on the wall, I listened and observed and got to know a few folks.
What immediately struck me was this was a mix of folks that were undoubtedly exposing themselves willingly to legal troubles or death to protest what the federal government did to a father and son ranching operation that grazed cattle on Malheur. The key question should have been why would people do this, much less in part a group of largely conservative Mormons who didn’t even drink iced tea much less have a criminal record. However, the media seemed in a struggle that was directed by the government and advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty law center portraying them as an all white militia attempting to make the issue one of race and linking it to the tragic events at Ruby Ridge and Waco. This narrative was patently false. It was about ranching on public land and grazing rights.
Starrs in his essay in* Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West* describes the phenomena.
“To put it simply, for ranching dissenters, the lowing of livestock, the trappings of transhumance, and assuredly a cowhand ’s call each are held to cheapen what would otherwise presumably be a human-free experience of perfectly pristine nature. The rest of the world, though, tends to see the matter rather a bit differently: Ranching represents a valued closeness of people to nature that is all too seldom now achieved. Such distancing from the land comes at a cost to the human spirit and intellect.”
No one was speaking about why they said they were there, which in all candor could be described in two sentences. Ranching, grazing rights and most importantly a father and son rancher jailed twice for the same alleged crime. A controlled burn of sixty acres in violation of a BLM policiy that prevented a larger potentially catastrophic forest fire.
This sentiment would be echoed by federal Judge Gloria M. Navarro when she dismissed the Bundy’s case two years later, citing the federal prosecution’s and the F.B.I.’s “flagrant misconduct” and “deliberate attempts to mislead and distort the truth.” And it would be be expressed by a federal grand jury when the FBI agent believed to be responsible for protestor Lavoy Finnicum’s shooting faced five felony charges for lying about shooting at him. But what was told about Malheur in the national media helped shaped a public opinion that is so hopelessly divided, not the issue of grazing rights nor the ruling on facts by a judge years later. It’s as if the facts of Malheur matter less than larger political agendas. Malheur is about grazing rights and aspects of federal land-use in the west. How we designate the use of public land, however, dry a subject to some is important and should never be co-opted into a discussion of race nor terrorism by groups seeking to advance their causes that are unrelated.
In the coming months, I’m going to return to Malheur. Think about what I witnessed and interview a few people sharing their reflections. Both the men pictured in the videos above were arrested and convicted. Patrick interviewed above, was convicted of felony conspiracy charges, trespassing, tampering with vehicles and equipment and destruction and removal of property at the refuge. Patrick, from Georgia, at his sentencing quoted his Congressman and Civil Right’s Activist John Lewis: If you see something that is not right, then you have to speak up and speak out and find a way to get in the way. Duane, who refused a plea offer, was convicted damaging government property by using a BLM excavator to dig a trench in the parking lot and sentenced to a year and a day. “Hellboy” was sent home and put in a pasture waiting for his owner to be released. Our kneejerk reaction is to think these men are crazy, but it ignores the debate on public land use. Why do seemingly ordinary people get involved in a ranching protest that led them to prison is a worthwhile subject of inquiry.
My day job that supports documentary photography is working as an alpine guide and land planning in the role of a landscape architect in the off-season. Day in and day out I am forced to negotiate competing interests with regulatory agencies in land use and measure the environmental effects of intervention by a proposed development. As a moutain guide I am given permits to access delicate alpine tundra and use my judment on just how far to push limits of humans with the needs of wildlife. Malheur is part of a larger question about how we protect the ecology of the mountain west and balance that with private land use. It is not a new debate in this country, but it certainly should be a more informed one given the technology and access to data we have at this point.
Hopefully, as a landscape architect anmd planner, I can visually display that data as it relates to these questions in a fair, objective manner that allows us to see the underlying realties. What I do know is the more we understand about the land use in question, the more accurate a decision about its use results. Lastly, I want to know more about a completely ignored aspect of Malheur which is its spiritual and historical significance to the northern Paiute tribe that has been shamefully neglected.
1: Starrs, Paul F. “An Inescapable Range, or the Ranch as Everywhere.”, Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West. Ed. Gary J. Hausladen. Hinsdale: University of Nevada Press, 2003.