By Bob Ferris
|The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge because of its protected nature is a stopping point for waterfowl.|
As an ecologist trained in systems thinking I tend to try to find root causes for problems because then you can identify cures that work rather than just treatments for symptoms. With the Bundy clan this is pretty difficult, but once you cut through all the unfounded Constitutional crap (1,2), slobbery entitlement rhetoric, and Captain Moroni claptrap that is not supported by the leaders of their own religion, you are left with deep-seated anger that all seems to relate to their fundamental problems with issues relating to social and ecological balance.
For example, responsible citizenship in the US is a balance of rights and responsibilities. The Bundys seem to fully grasp—perhaps over-grasp—the "rights" part of the equation such as subsidized grazing on federal lands which they have enjoyed for three generations (the last two decades without paying) or Ammon's access to roughly a half million dollars in federal loan guarantees for his business which he would not have qualified for under normal conditions, but which costs American tax-payers more than $22,000. Add to the above federal subsidies that helped build the roads which allow the Bundys to get their melons to customers or folks to them as well as monies to rural schools and communication’s systems that facilitate their ability to post their unfounded ramblings on Facebook. Heck even the roadside barriers the standoff snipers hid behind were probably paid for in part with federal monies. In essence, the “rights” bucket is fully filled.
The balance part of this (i.e., the responsibility element) is very simple: Obey the laws as formulated by the US Constitution and all other entities enabled by that document. But this seems too high a hurdle for the Bundys. When legally asked to remove their cattle from federal land they abused, their answer was: No punctuated with a costly armed stand-off. When the federal government showed incredible and probably too much restraint in many people’s estimation in dealing with the stand-off, the Bundys’ response was to escalate their imbalance by bravely “capturing” the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.
A lot of this could be characterized as too strong a sense of entitlement as the original acorn of the Bundy discontent that has grown into this great oak tree of government overthrow apparent stems from Cliven’s grandfather being denied federal grazing privileges and the family having to move. I can understand the desire to stay in one place and be granted a living, but as I and many others in this country have had to move repeatedly to find work it is a position that I have a difficult time generating true sympathy towards.
Now when I look at all of this it is easy to get distracted by a tidal wave of contradictions such as Cliven not recognizing the federal government yet famously riding up a hill with an American flag. Or Ammon’s evoking the “We the People” phrase and advocating protection of local interests, while taking an action which closes local schools, blocks locals from access to the refuge for waterfowl hunting, and potentially may cancel a popular annual bird-watching event that draws visitors and revenues to the region. But back to the issue of balance.
Perhaps the most important balance disconnect with the Bundys is an ecological one. This one too is complicated as it is a combination of unrealistic expectations and ecological ignorance applied across a vulnerable landscape of scarcity. The Bundys’ Bunkerville and the Harney Basin—where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Hammond Ranch are situated—are both fragile environments ill-suited for commercial grazing of cattle or sheep yet both have been subjected to these pressures resulting in what really should be unsurprising consequences.
In the case of the Bundy’s allotment near Bunkerville you have a situation where federally-leased land with an extremely low carrying capacity collided with the economic needs of a family who saw children as one of their primary crops. Is it surprising in any way that a father with 14 children might overstock public range in order to support his over-abundance of off-spring? Likewise, is it shocking that this chronic overstocking ultimately would lead to impacts on native wildlife—including endangered species—requiring the federal government to curtail these abuses by canceling these leases? And with the family’s unsustainable mindset in hand wouldn’t it follow that resentment would grow within those children against the federal government that said “enough is enough” rather than against their own father who apparently could not control his reproductive excesses?
|in Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story 1800-1940.|
Now those same Bundy children are applying that identical Sagebrush Rebellion-style logic to the Harney Basin as they are implying that the refuge was established in the absence of justification and that the entire basin system would be better served if left to the ranchers and others that want to extract resources. In this it is informative to understand that the basin has always been a tough and fragile place. In fact, in 2010 a movie was made called Meek’s Cutoff which documents the 1845 incident where mountain man Steven Meeks led a wagon train through the Harney Basin losing 23 people, because they could not find water (see above clip).
“Their early ranches in Harney and Malheur Counties were something totally new to Oregon: they were huge livestock operations in terms of herd size, water rights, and acres; they were owned by distant investors in cities like San Francisco and Sacramento; and they were run on site by experienced junior partners or trusted employees.” In A Hard Country to Settle.President Grant declared part of the Harney Basin an Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872 which given the practice in that day of giving the worst and least valuable lands to tribes says something also about the quality of these lands. But gold was discovered and ranchers wanted access to these lands so bullying by economic interests led to the reservation being dissolved in 1879 and absentee ranchers from California over-loading the Harney Valley and surrounds with sheep and cattle (see below). The damage of these actions was evident in 1901 and remains with us as we look at the conundrums associated with the on-going problems with Hart Mountain and other issues including the wild horse herds.
|in Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story 1800-1940|
It was out of this dangerous soup of absentee ranchers, scarce resources needed by migrating waterfowl, and continually degrading habitat that started with when trappers first started removing beavers in the 1820 that acted as the catalyst for the formation of the initial Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. It was an emergency move by President Roosevelt, but it was also a move based up a real need created by flawed local management regimes that jeopardized both local conditions for future grazing and the biological viability of species in other regions. Waterfowl hunters all along the Pacific Flyway and bird watchers should be thankful that Theodore Roosevelt—a Harvard educated biologist—had the foresight to take this action rather than bowing to the “Bundys” of the early 1900s.
I think all of us want to see a peaceful resolution to this current Bundy catalyzed stand-off with appropriate punishments handed out to the perpetrators of this addition, needless waste of energy and our collective resources. At the same time, we need as a nation to stop these false narratives both in terms of what our US Constitution says and the misrepresentations about ecological conditions and natural dynamics in water-challenged areas of the West that has led to this Sagebrush Rebellion and the efforts to steal federal lands from the rightful owners which is all of us not just the loud, armed and ten-gallon hatted.