At Malheur, Sally Jewell was missing in action

The secretary of the Interior instead took a trip to Africa to combat wildlife poaching.

 

The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was the latest in a series of fights against federal management of Western land that have, for better or worse, been lumped together as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The story will now unwind in the relative safety of the courts, yet I haven’t been able to shake one question: Where was Sally Jewell when the West needed her?

The former REI executive who is now the secretary of the Interior is in charge of national wildlife refuges like the Malheur; public grazing lands like the ones the Bundys run their cattle; Indian sacred sites like those of the Burns Paiute Tribe; as well as of our national parks, our endangered fish and wildlife, and our water.

Jewell ought to be the first person to stand up for these treasures when they come under attack. Instead, we got complete silence. Meanwhile, the occupiers tramped out to hold daily press conferences, laying forth a litany of grievances wrapped in anti-government venom, and the news media lapped it up.

Bafflingly, Jewell has been a no-show not once but twice now. Before the 41-day siege at the Malheur, there was the showdown on Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, in 2014.

This time, there was something oddly touching about the occupiers’ misspelled signs and earnest malapropisms — to say nothing of the care packages stuffed with sex toys. But there was also a heartbreaking sense of renegades being carried off by their own strident sloganeering, swept toward a calamitous rendezvous with the FBI’s counter-terrorist assault teams. And so Robert “LaVoy” Finicum would die an almost farcical death in the snow after trying to blow through a roadblock, Dukes of Hazzard-style.

The occupiers’ manifesto was a toss-it-all-in-the-blender purée of complaints and resentments. It was sometimes hard to remember that the occupation was also a manifestation of a genuine tension between different ways of seeing the West, with its roots firmly in some of the core issues involving the public lands, like grazing management and endangered-species protection. 

Most importantly, though, this was part of an argument about how we work out our differences in a region where land and resources are at the heart of many fights. The takeover forced soul-searching in the communities of eastern Oregon. And what emerged was a message to the occupiers that went something like this: We know your rage is real. It has deep roots. But whatever our differences, this is not the way we solve problems in the West. This tears communities apart — and this is the way people get hurt.

We needed Jewell’s voice to tell us this, too, or something like it. Instead, she took a trip to Africa. That trip, her press handlers will be quick to point out, was part of an international effort to stop wildlife smuggling. Fair enough. Standing up to people like the Malheur occupiers is not an enviable job, but it is, ultimately, Jewell’s job.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visits Cache Creek Wilderness, in California, in Dec. 2014.

Her absence from the Malheur debacle felt like flat-out dereliction of duty. And the optics, as the media flacks say, were terrible. Incomprehensibly, in the midst of an armed seizure of one of her offices, the Interior Department’s media office released a video clip of Jewell in Kenya, “making friends with a baby rhinoceros.” 

It will be a long time before this latest chapter of the Sagebrush Rebellion finds its proper place in the annals of history. But Jewell will be remembered — if at all — as an indifferent bureaucrat in fleece, who jetted off to Africa at a time when her voice and leadership were sorely needed at home.

Matt Jenkins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is a longtime contributor to the magazine.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.