After Malheur, side effects of the Bundys’ extremism linger

But in Harney County, Oregon, collaboration around public lands grows.


On the night of Jan. 26, 2016, Brenda Smith was nearing the end of a six-hour drive home from the Portland area to Burns, in Harney County, Oregon, basking in the knowledge that her scrappy nonprofit had just won a $6 million grant. The High Desert Partnership helps locals collaborate on natural resource management, and this was by far the biggest grant it had ever received. It meant that she could finally rent a real office and hire other full-time employees. Smith was exhausted from the long day, but things were looking up.

Around 10 p.m. on Highway 20, a solid line of police cars with flashing lights sped by, traveling in the opposite direction. Smith assumed they had something to do with the occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, now in its fourth week. Self-described militia from across the country had been driving around Burns since December, many demanding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service somehow turn the refuge land over to locals. The leader of the occupation — Ammon Bundy of Idaho — claimed he was making a stand against government “tyranny.”

After seeing the police cars, Smith pulled over, flipped on the radio, and learned that law enforcement had shot and killed one of the inner circle of occupiers, a man named LaVoy Finicum, in a roadside confrontation. For weeks, her town had been wrapped in chaos, and now this — a violent death. “It was pretty surreal,” she told me during an interview in May, referring to the coincidental timing of the shooting and her grant funding. Finicum’s death would mean more division, even as the grant would bolster her efforts to build bridges for years to come. 

Harney County, where collaboration helped residents move beyond the armed standoff at Malheur.
Ken Lund cc via Flickr

The occupation had been hard on Burns, a small town in a huge county, pitting friends and family against one another. Yet High Desert Partnership seemed to represent an alternative to the extremists’ way. Where the Bundys, whose occupation ultimately lasted six weeks, sowed discord, Smith and her partners sought communication, compromise and collaboration. The community has, in many ways, successfully withstood one of the stranger moments in modern Western history, and it could hold further lessons for other counties where public-lands extremists seek to bring division. Put another way, as one local rancher said: High Desert Partnership’s methods were “what inoculated us from the Bundy disease.”

High Desert Partnership began about 15 years ago, as a conversation between Chad Karges, who was then deputy manager for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and a cattle rancher named Gary Marshall. Relations between local ranchers and refuge employees had been volatile for decades, as the two sides butted heads over livestock and wildlife. The bad blood extended beyond the Fish and Wildlife Service, to the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, whose management decisions were tied up in litigation. Karges knew something had to change. The refuge was supposed to create a new 15-year plan in a few years. “If we didn’t do something different,” he told me, “we shouldn’t expect a different outcome than what the BLM and Forest Service were experiencing.”

So Karges and Marshall started looking around the West for communities that had forged lasting solutions to thorny disagreements. They reached out to the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana, the Quivira Coalition in New Mexico, and the Malpai Borderlands Group in Arizona, all of which created successful partnerships between federal agencies, locals and conservation groups. Two things became clear: Natural resource projects needed to come as much from the community as the federal government, and they needed a nonprofit to provide a safe, neutral forum for conversation around tough issues, like cattle grazing in a bird sanctuary.

In the early 2000s, Karges and Marshall started assembling local adversaries to talk about land management, determined to bring community members into land-use planning from the beginning, rather than waiting for a federal draft plan and a public comment period. “We met for two years, just building relationships,” Karges says. By 2005, they had enough buy-in to establish the non-profit.

Harney County Restoration Collaboration facilitator Jack Southworth talks about the need for fire-tolerant and ecologically diverse forest ecosystems in Crooked Creek Meadow.
Courtesy of High Desert Partnership

High Desert Partnership’s first real test began immediately, with the refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The group provided a meeting space and facilitators and gathered about 30 participants to share ideas. At first, environmentalists and ranchers fell into their traditional roles, arguing about livestock’s impacts on the land. But as the meetings went on, the two sides found something in common: invasive carp. For decades, common carp had filled Malheur Lake and nearby waterways, squeezing out other species and throwing the ecosystem off balance. Migrating bird populations were declining more as a result of carp than cows. So rather than argue over livestock, the two sides made carp a cornerstone of the plan. In the five years since it was finished, the Malheur plan has never been litigated. The refuge still allows grazing in some areas, and the collaborative group is collecting data to better understand livestock’s impacts on the ecosystem.

Other successes followed. A BLM district manager co-founded the Harney County Wildfire Collaborative to improve relationships between his agency and local fire associations and conduct more effective fire suppression. The Harney Basin Wetland Initiative was launched to improve over 500,000 acres of wetlands on public and private lands. The Harney County Restoration Collaborative helps plan forest management projects for the Malheur National Forest north of Burns.

By the time the Bundys decided to take over the refuge, on Jan. 2, 2016, the county had over a decade of collaboration under its belt. “Bundy picked the wrong place,” Steve Grasty, a former county judge and co-founder of High Desert Partnership’s forest collaborative, told me during an interview at his home outside Burns in May. “He didn’t know about us.” 

Grant County, by comparison, just to the north, at the time seemed more sympathetic to the Malheur occupation. The Blue Mountain Eagle, a local newspaper, reported that Sheriff Glenn Palmer met with central figures in the occupation and called them “patriots.” During the fatal roadside confrontation, Finicum said he and several others were on their way to meet with Palmer. State and federal law enforcement deliberately stopped the occupiers before they entered Grant County because officials said more people there, including the sheriff, were sympathetic to their cause. In November 2016, voters re-elected Palmer for a fifth term.

Looking back, Karges thinks Bundy’s ideology could have swayed Harney County, had the culture of collaboration not taken root in recent years. “If it had been before 1999, the whole community could have gone to the Bundys,” he said.

Four months after the occupation, Bundy supporters tried to recall Grasty, who had vigorously opposed the occupation, but an overwhelming 70 percent of voters opted to keep him in his seat. That year, several pro-Bundy county commission candidates lost by wide margins. “As a metric of support for the Bundy ideology, I think that was a pretty clear rejection,” says Peter Walker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon and author of a forthcoming book about Harney County.

Meanwhile, High Desert Partnership’s work has continued. The wetlands initiative has grown with the $6 million grant, and HDP recently launched a new initiative to engage local youth. In May, the group held its first “Harney County Way” summit to bring together dozens of stakeholders working on economic and natural resource issues, to exchange ideas and build relationships. Smith called it a celebration of collaborative work since 2005.

Certainly, the Malheur occupation has left lasting scars in Harney County, dividing people here along ideological lines — those who support the occupiers’ anti-federal message, versus those who don’t.

Joan Davies, a former city administrator at the time of the occupation, has moved away after spending most of her 63 years in Harney County. During the occupation, she received emails, phone calls and texts for weeks on end from a stranger who pressured her to run for county commission on a pro-Bundy platform. Davies says the takeover forced her to choose a political side, something she was not accustomed to doing. “I don’t vote a straight ticket,” she said over the phone. “I never knew what I was in those terms — until the occupation.” Davies is now estranged from some of her family, most of whom supported the Bundys.

Forest Service personnel join members of the Harney County Restoration Collaborative and Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative for two days of eradicating carp in Malheur Lake and its tributaries in fall 2016.
Courtesy of High Desert Partnership

Today, many locals simply avoid the subject as much as possible. “How we’re dealing with it is we try to not recognize it,” Pauline Braymen, a rancher and former newspaper reporter, said.

Ammon Bundy, on the other hand, talks about the occupation all the time. In 2016, he was acquitted of charges related to it, and charges against him for participating in the 2014 armed standoff in Nevada were dismissed in January. This year, he has traveled the West, speaking to small audiences about his dislike of the federal government and environmentalists, as well as his fringe belief that the Constitution prohibits federal land ownership outside Washington, D.C.

In May, Ammon spoke in Yreka, California, the seat of the far-right state of Jefferson movement. There, he encouraged people to “stand up” for their water rights, not in the courts but “there at the diversion” — a suggestion that echoed the chainsaws and blowtorches that opened headgates in that region during the drought of 2001. The Yreka crowd welcomed Bundy’s words.

But Harney County is another story. Two years after the occupation, Karges and Smith see the Bundy episode as a mere bump in the road. As for how the refuge and locals are working together to manage the land? “It hasn’t changed at all,” Karges said.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. 

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