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Know the West

HCN in the 2010s

The era was defined by Malheur, pipeline protests and the beginning of the Trump presidency.


Kyle Mateo, Marisa Pelletier and Rick Buckman Coe (from left) pose for a photograph in the Oceti Sakowin camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in November 2016.
Terray Sylvester

The 2010s were marked by growing tensions across the West, as right-wing organizations rebelled against the person and policies of President Barack Obama, and a diverse coalition of liberal-minded activists came together to fight extractive energy projects, climate change, and racial and economic injustice.

Galvanized by the election of our first African American president and connected by new social media tools, hundreds of right-wing protesters descended on the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy in 2014. Bundy had already made a name for himself for refusing to pay over $1 million in grazing fees for his use of federal lands. Two years later, an armed militia led by Bundy’s son, Ammon, seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in eastern Oregon, demanding that public lands managed by the federal government be turned over to the states. That conflict lasted 40 days and resulted in the death of one militia member, numerous arrests, and, alas, very few convictions.

Meanwhile, climate and social justice activists found common ground on the High Plains in October of 2016, when Native American tribes led a protest against the Dakota Access (oil) Pipeline, which threatened water sources and sacred burial sites near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The violent response to the protesters gained extensive media attention, including incisive, on-the-ground coverage from High Country News. It also foreshadowed the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

The 2016 election of President Donald Trump laid bare the deep divides across the country — especially in the West. Within months, the Trump administration began unraveling pretty much every progressive environmental protection put on the books by the Obama administration. In December 2017, a year after Obama collaborated with five tribes to create the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, Trump slashed its size by 85%. He also cut in half the state’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Trump, who used illegal immigration as his campaign’s signature issue, diverted funds from other agencies to extend a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. High Country News reporters delved deep into the Borderlands, revealing the severed connections between once-united communities, the environmental impacts of wall construction, and the efforts of some locals to stand up against the vigilante groups patrolling the region.

High Country News rode the waves of protest against the Trump presidency to new heights in paid circulation and website visitation.  In the summer of 2017, we created an Indigenous Affairs Desk overseen by Native American journalists, a first for any non-Native news outlet in the country. In March of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, HCN published a year-long investigation into how expropriated Indigenous lands provided the foundation for the nation’s land-grant universities. 

Brooke Warren photographing for a story at Paonia Reservoir, Colorado, in 2017.
Emily Benson/High Country News

The mad, fervent and misguided

“It was nerve-racking, following heavily armed men into the middle of nowhere, to a 187,757-acre wildlife refuge 30 miles from the nearest town. I arrived at the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge at dusk on Jan. 2, the only reporter present. Four armed men stood around a sagebrush fire they’d built behind a white truck, which blocked the road to the occupied buildings. They were ‘not at liberty to talk to the media,’ one said, and they initially refused to be photographed. But when I reminded them that I had a constitutional right to take pictures on public land, they agreed.”

—Brooke Warren, HCN production associate, on her unplanned New Year’s visit to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016.

“I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my childhood, and of Lewis’ writings on the nature of evil, where evil is never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature, has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes hatred of those we believe don’t share our devotion, or don’t share it the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a world replete with man’s endeavors. The Constitution, one of the most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement.”

—Hal Herring, from his essay, “The Darkness at the Heart of Malheur,” in the March 21, 2016, print edition

Krystal Quiles/High Country News

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