Reflections on the Standoff in Oregon

Reflections on the Standoff in Oregon

The abandoned sawmill outside of Burns. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

I help parent a teenage boy, who’s hard at work developing a portfolio of unassailable convictions. If my parents were to read this they’d smile and say: gosh, that all sounds awfully familiar.

One of the challenges of parenting, of course, is figuring out how to encourage individuality, free thought, and conviction while also providing a framework that keeps a kid honest and his mind expanding. One of our strategies involves discussing the news at the dinner table, the goal being simply to explore how complicated most issues are – to highlight the shades of gray that get colored over in a world that seems more and more sure of itself every day. We’re using a hairdryer to dry up the ocean, I know.

In any case, I was thinking about all this over coffee this morning as I was reading news coverage of the standoff between activist ranchers and law enforcement that’s going on in Oregon, and anticipating that we might talk about it at dinner tonight. How would you explain a bunch of armed men acting like teenagers to an actual teenager? There’s a lot there that must seem empathetic – ‘gov-ment telling the ranchers they can’t set fires on federal land not unlike a mother telling a son he can’t light candles in his room. And of course I’m also sensitive to the urban bias in a lot of media sources that writes these guys off as wack-jobs and doesn’t try to comprehend the underlying issues that are at play. What we have here is a struggle to find a balance between individual liberty and broader social organization – it’s basically the essence of American democracy. I’d love to be able to find a way to talk about that in a meaningful way.

At first look, what’s going on out there seems uniquely Western. The ring leaders of the whole thing – the Bundy family – are Nevada ranchers who graze their cattle on public land and refuse to pay for the right to do it. I have a real hard time wrapping my Eastern mind around the idea of grazing my animals on my neighbor’s land and not expecting to compensate them, whether that neighbor is a private individual or a public entity. But this gets to one of the huge differences between East and West. The open land in the politically conservative West – and we’re talking vast acreage that would swallow the Northeast – is mostly owned by the federal government, and I guess they’re just taking Woody Guthrie at his word. That land is their land, and they’ll use it how they want to, by gawd. In politically liberal Vermont, where I live, the open land is 80 percent privately owned, and I guess I’ve just gotten used to the conservative idea of private property rights. At first glance, the political labels seem contradictory, but I guess it makes sense that you’d resent the federal government more in a place where the federal government is essentially your landlord.

Some of the details of the standoff do hit closer to home. A nearby population center, Burns, was a lumber town that served the Hines sawmill – read about it here. The mill reigned for 50 years; at its peak in 1962 it shipped 134 million feet of lumber. Then in the eighties it lost a government contract to cut wood on national forest land and the mill shut down shortly thereafter; this gets to the heart of some of the resentment people feel towards the Fed. Pinning the closure on the lost contract is like pinning the loss of a football game on a missed field goal at the end, but regardless, it’s a piece of what happened and highlights the danger of being a private company that gets its raw material from public lands, something that’s inescapable in much of the West. If the mill had held on for another decade, it might have been federal regulations involving the spotted owl that delivered the death blow.

I’ve watched a much smaller version of all this play out in southern Vermont, where I’m from, as former timberland became national forest and harvesting was deemphasized. Loggers and local mills lost work. The nature of the place changed a bit. The local tax base went down. The same sort of thing has gone on in the Adirondacks and northern New Hampshire; it’s at the heart of the opposition to Roxanne Quimby’s plan to turn her former timberland in Maine into a national park. There are arguments to be made for public ownership and the values associated with it; and the context of the ownership is different here than it is out West, where the feds have owned the land since the country wrested it from the native people; and the context and issues keep changing – they’re different now than they were 10 years ago and will be different in 10 years than they are now. Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge the fear and resentment some rural people feel toward federal ownership and regulation of the land they live near and work on. It’s not so different than understanding how municipal planning and policing have contributed to the angst in urban black communities that’s at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.

If we talk about all this tonight at dinner, I want to try to make the point that the armed part of the occupation is unhinged and complete B.S. But the tensions there are fair and get to the heart of who we are as a country. Where is that balance point between the individual and the community, between the community and the state, between the state and the country, between spotted owl activists and rural loggers, between the sage grouse and the beef cow, between rural and urban values, and on and on and on. We do our best to find an equilibrium, then we pass things along to the next generation and hope they do a better job than we did.

  1. Chuck Wooster → in White River Junction, VT
    Jan 08, 2016

    Dave, you’re a master and a pleasure to read, and I hold this self-evident truth in my (albeit dwindling) portfolio of unassailable convictions. Thanks for keeping on. We all benefit.

  2. Brenda Stckney → in Andover
    Jan 08, 2016

    Dave, there is civil unrest due to the constant hacking away at individual rights by the Federal Government. Each generation accepts more, and soon your freedom has vanished. The people are tired of it and want it to stop. They can go to the ballot box, but that’s all rigged. Then they have their guns, at least for now. There aren’t many choices left.

  3. Michael Batcher → in Buskirk, NY
    Jan 08, 2016

    You stated: “What we have here is a struggle to find a balance between individual liberty and broader social organization – it’s basically the essence of American democracy.” I disagree. Just like private landowners, state and federal agencies manage land for various goals and purposes. This is about how land can and should be managed by one or more federal agencies. I don’t see how that affects individual liberty. I can see how it might affect the economics of ranching. Those are different issues.

  4. Alice Allen → in Ryegate, VT
    Jan 08, 2016

    The article below tells a deeper story too.  Also, Mormonism is involved with the Bundy clan so we have A LOT to think about with this Oregon saga.  Good idea to discuss all of this with maturing teenagers!

  5. Larry Campion → in NE Connecticut
    Jan 08, 2016

    The problem is that both sides are wrongheaded and no one is giving common sense a chance, not that it ever gets a chance anywhere. The following story gives a little deeper background into the distrust that they have for the Fed.

    SD Stockgrowers note fire double standard

    “SD Stockgrowers Association supports full compensation to the ranchers who were harmed by the Pautre Fire, and believe that liability should be applied to the U.S. Forest Service the way the Hammonds were held liable for setting that fire.” - S.D. Stockgrowers Association President Bill Kluck

    The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association sent letters this week to congressional delegates, the U.S. Attorney General’s office and the South Dakota Attorney General’s office questioning what they call “egregiously unbalanced response of federal land management agencies” and supporting the claims South Dakota ranchers made for compensation after the 2013 Pautre Fire burned nearly 10,000 acres of federal and private land.

    “There is a big double standard being applied in these government land agencies,” said Stockgrowers President Bill Kluck. “We cannot support the use of terrorism laws against a family ranch while forest service staff are just allowed to go about their day. We’re not questioning who set these fires, but we’re very worried about how the law is being used.”

    The 2013 Pautre Fire in South Dakota burned over 10,000 acres, about 3,000 of which was federally owned land and the rest was privately owned land. The U.S. Forest Service has refused to pay any damages and no employees have been charged with wrongdoing. Private landowners and ranchers affected by the blaze filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service last week after their claims for damage compensation were denied. The U.S. Forest Service ruled that the agency was not responsible for damages even though they intentionally set the fire, against recommendations from local ranchers and weather forecasters.

    In the letter, President of the Association, Bill Kluck stated, “The kind of unchecked decision-making authority and lack of accountability from federal land management agencies as seen in the Pautre Fire, can and will be applied to other situations and likely at the expense of independent livestock producers and private property owners.”

    SD Stockgrowers drew comparison to current situation in Oregon where a father and son have been sentenced to five years in federal prison after a prescribed burn on their private property burned less than 140 acres of federal property. The family is required to pay $400,000 in damages and was prosecuted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carries a minimum 5-year sentence.

    “SD Stockgrowers Association supports full compensation to the ranchers who were harmed by the Pautre Fire, and believe that liability should be applied to the U.S. Forest Service the way the Hammonds were held liable for setting that fire.”

    “South Dakota Stockgrowers Association is very concerned about the lack of accountability and responsibility being applied to federal agencies in one case while private individuals are held to a much higher, and completely different level of responsibility in the other,” said Kluck.

    “We are asking that our congressional delegates, the South Dakota Attorney General and U.S. Attorney’s office take a look at these cases to see how we can correct this injustice to the Hammond family and use their case to make sure that our South Dakota ranchers are able to hold the Forest Service accountable and liable for their actions on the Pautre Fire.”

    –South Dakota Stockgrowers Association

    As usual more thought provoking stuff from Northern Woodlands, keep it coming.

  6. Paul Hannan → in Calais,VT
    Jan 09, 2016

    I sometimes say my “curse” in life is that I can always see both sides of an issue.  It’s not entirely true and I seldom lack for a solid opinion on things, but it’s always nice to see a fellow traveler sorting out issues like this.  Excellent writing/thinking/probing, David.

  7. Harold Jamieson → in PA
    Jan 09, 2016

    Don’t feel too bad for those guys, they’ve been feeding at the public trough for many, many years. Even though Papa Bundy pays less to lease public land than he would to lease comparable private land, he still owes well over $1 million to the public treasury and shows no sign of ever paying.

    All they want is the ability to repeat the abuse the land suffered at the hands of ranchers in the distant past. they forget, or maybe don’t think, they’re part of a larger country and that land belongs to all of us - even people who aren’t like them.

    Many years ago I worked for a forest products company in northern New England, a company that was liquidating its timber. Because they cut every acre that was worth cutting, those acres haven’t supported any loggers or mill workers for decades. How much better it would have been if the woodland had been in public ownership and managed responsibly. The acreage may not have supported as many families as it did when logging was in full swing, but it would have supported some for the long-term.

    Public ownership of woodland in the east is a direct result of the cut-and-get-out abuse of private owners. A primary reason much of the public domain in the west was retained was that same abuse. And, don’t forget that huge acreages of western land were essentially given away as subsidies to corporation that were building railroads. Those acres are now either ranches or corporate timberlands. Much of that timberland was apparently overcut resulting in the mills becoming dependent on publicly owned timber to keep operating.

    While I sympathize with the individual loggers or small ranchers, many of them don’t seem to recognize the real root of their problems.

  8. Garry Plunkett → in Tiverton, RI
    Jan 10, 2016

    A thoughtful piece to consider before hurling verbal grenades at the “crazies” ____ fill in the blank on a definition of who that is.

  9. Sue Schumacher → in Bend, OR
    Jan 12, 2016

    Hines is outside Burns, OR. Bend is further west on US 20 by a couple hours. Bend has a logging history similar to Hines but has grown away from its conserative roots through bustling tourism,  small business, high tech and craft beer.

    I grew up in New England,  spent my childhood hiking the LT and summers on Stratton mtn-Grout Pond and the whites.  The current struggles in OR certainly are similar to the dynamics in New England between ‘the old way’ and the ‘yuppie-environmentalists.’

  10. Doug Baston → in Alna, Maine
    Jan 12, 2016

    A guy that served as a selectman with me years ago - as old then as I am now - once said: “The older I get, the less sure I am of anything.”

    Thank you for a thoughtful and balanced piece, sympathetic to all the interests and emotions in play.

    I ask my progressive friends: Take away the guns, which are there just as a symbolic display, how is this any different that Occupy Wall Street?

  11. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Jan 12, 2016

    Thanks for the correction, Sue. I’ve tweaked the text.

  12. Carolyn → in East Wallingford, VT
    Jan 17, 2016

    Nice to see someone thinking their way through a complex problem and putting it into broader perspective.

  13. Michael Gow → in Rehoboth, MA
    Jan 17, 2016

    Dave, once again you masterfully write about a sensitive subject that avoids victimizing your politically diverse audience.  I appreciate the many comparisons to various happenings around the country; VT and the expansion of the National Forest, SD and the legal disputes over land management and compensation, to the events currently happening in OR.  Unfortunately, Bundy and his extremists actions, have stolen the headlines from a legitimate dispute between two parties.  We must not allow extremists to fog the glass of legitimate legal disputes.  What the rancher in OR needs more is an action network of lawyers and activists no different from organizations that stand up for the rights of the less fortunate and minorities.  Then, the arguments presented in the case to the media will have firm ground to stand upon.  Perhaps ranchers and farmers out west should consider starting an organization to help them fight for common ground or perhaps there is one whose voice is unheard.

  14. Dave Betts → in Industry, Maine
    Jan 21, 2016

    Large western federal land holdings are always going to be a burr in the saddle of ranchers, timber interests, miners and drillers. No matter how those lands are managed, there will always be those who see untapped natural resources they wish to access for profit.

    Those wishes and what is best for the lands involved—and the public interests in those lands—are difficult to combine and accommodate successfully.

    The bottom line is there will always be those who resent federal land ownership.

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