Nonviolent protest: A lesson for the occupiers at Malheur


On a cold Tuesday in January, when the Malheur occupation was in full swing, I marched alongside demonstrators in Portland to support the ousting of the Bundys and their armed militia. We were pretty much a hodgepodge group of birders, conservationists and nature-loving pacifists. There were no guns in sight; instead, demonstrators held signs high, telling the story of why we were there.

“Bundy go home now.”

“I (heart) Harney County.”

“Public lands are America’s refuge.”

“Keep it public, keep it wild.”

My motivation for showing up was partly based on my personal history with the refuge. In the late 1990s, I received my early training as a biologist along the Blitzen River and its tributaries, which flow from glacier-carved valleys in the Steens Mountains. Malheur’s ecosystem depends on the Blitzen and its steams, for they are the source of the area’s icy water. That clean water also means that the condition of the fragile riverbank — its willow, cottonwood, alder and aspen — is crucial.

On and around the refuge, I recall driving with biologists over seemingly endless highways through the sagebrush sea, jackrabbits darting into the road at night, and chatting with locals over berry pie at the Frenchglen Hotel. We met a retired wildland firefighter who’d come to a frank but uncomfortable conclusion: He believed that the forests he’d spent much of his life protecting would have been much healthier if they’d been allowed to burn.

“I wasted my whole life fighting fires,” he told us. Whether he was right or wrong, we knew he cared deeply about the fate of the forests and the land. We met other locals who loved the refuge’s trout streams, its abundant game and thriving bird communities.

In the decades since then, I’ve worked alongside federal and state employees, tribal members and ranchers who share a common interest in protecting the West’s rangelands. In Wyoming, another hotbed of confrontational range politics, I knew a cattle rancher who proudly hung an award for sustainable grazing practices on his living room wall. All the Malheur takeover tells us is that some ranchers (and some wannabe ranchers) and their anti-government supporters have never understood the concept of publicly owned land.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, center, and Cody Martz, an avian biologist from Washington State University, right, have done fieldwork at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They traveled to Harney County to protest the occupation of Malheur during the Jan. 16 press conference.
Jeff Schwilk

This pattern has a deep history. In a turn-of-the-century letter to the Oregonian, the secretary of Crook County’s Sheep Shooter Association of Eastern Oregon said: “If we want more range we simply fence it in. … These mild and peaceful means are usually effective, but in cases where they are not, our executive committee takes the matter in hand, and being men of high ideals as well as good shots by moonlight, they promptly enforce the edicts of the association. ... ”

At the Portland rally last month, Sean Stevens of Oregon Wild warmed up the crowd with some protest songs. He added, “We can show the gang that's out there at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge how you really make a public statement in support of something.” He meant: Let’s keep it peaceful, folks, and that is how we tried to get our message across to the hundreds of people who were willing to listen to us.

Other speakers included Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society, who said he wanted the refuge’s invaders prosecuted. Jarvis Kennedy of the Burns Paiute Tribe asked: “Would the authorities have been so patient if the occupiers had been Natives?”

On Jan. 20, the day after demonstrations against the occupiers took place across Oregon in Portland, Eugene, La Grande and elsewhere, Gov. Kate Brown broke her long silence by speaking out against the Bundys and their allies. On Jan. 21, the FBI began intensive negotiations with the occupiers, leading to a chain of events that put some of the occupiers in jail, turned one into a martyr, and herded the remaining few into a small huddle, shivering around a dying campfire.

When I think back on the 41 days of a refuge under siege, what I like to recall is that cold day in Portland, when my fellow demonstrators and I marched from Holladay Park to the federal building in the Lloyd district. We formed a tight-knit group and swarmed into the courtyard as perplexed bureaucrats gazed down on us from behind their closed windows. Unarmed and unprotected, we chanted our demand: “Public lands in public hands, public lands in public hands. …”

We walked away after a while, and after drinking some hot coffee, we all went back to our working lives or on to daycare, to pick up the kids. We’d said our piece, and we hoped that people were listening.

Seth Michael White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is a biologist in Portland, Oregon, who works on issues related to river conservation.

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