“What the heck’s going on in Oregon?” I hadn’t heard from my friend from back East in years, but he had to call to ask about the militia take-over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “What is it they want? I sure can’t figure it out.”
“They say,” I answered, “that they want the wildlife refuge turned back to ‘the people.’”
I told him what’s behind the story of the hotheads who showed up in Oregon with their quiet arrogance and guns. It’s a postscript to the state’s bitter history of unbridled exploitation being challenged by a more recent environmental ethic. Just in the past few decades has Oregon gotten serious about repairing unchecked ravages of its once-astonishing natural riches. There’s no way to do that without pissing off some people. It can be as simple as not wanting a rancher’s cow shit to keep running into water that you drink or fish in. Or any more old-growth trees cut down. Or as complicated as managing publicly-owned rangeland that’s part of the ecosystem of a critical waterfowl refuge.
Ranchers don’t want anyone telling them they can’t operate like they always have. Or, ever get charged more for the privilege of using public lands. I can’t say that I know any ranchers personally, but I’m guessing they’re not unlike the farmers I knew back East – inveterate whiners forever bitching about government bureaucrats and rules, all the while taking government handouts and destroying publicly-owned waterways with their pollution.I know the Malheur refuge well. It’s a world-class birding hotspot. The 300-square-mile refuge includes salty lakes and seasonal marshes that are a critical link in the health and survival of North America’s waterfowl populations. It’s that important. During spring, the trees around its modest visitor center – now headquarters for the world-wide TV coverage of its armed takeover – are filled with migrating songbirds, including frequent rarities that attract birders from around the world. Once, I discovered a Baltimore oriole, common in the East but not here. I wonder how all the commotion created by this self-proclaimed militia has affected the owls that should be nesting right now in the evergreen trees out behind the building.
I’ve caught pretty little trout – redside rainbows, in the prettiest-named stream I know – the Donner & Blitzen River that flows 30 miles through the refuge. It’s not, unfortunately, named after Santa’s reindeer, but is German for “thunder & lightning,” coined by U.S. soldiers caught there in a storm while chasing Indians in 1864.
Speaking of which, I’m not the first to note that if we’re going to give that federal land “back” to anyone, shouldn’t it be to the red people who lived on it first and got chased off by the guns and diseases of white people – self-serving zealots who were just like the Malheur takeover leader, Ammon Bundy, and probably included his Mormon ancestors?
I’m sure Bundy and his fellow seditionists miss the irony that the local ranchers they purport to champion would be trespassers on Paiute land, but for the same federal government that they decry, stealing it from the Indians. In fact, yesterday was the 137th anniversary of the Paiute Trail of Tears when federal officials rounded up tribe members and forced them to move north, marching through knee-deep snow to a reservation far from their homes (Washington Post).
The on-going armed challenge to the government will change nothing, and eventually things will go back to normal. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will again be treated by its federal managers with the respect it deserves. On this fourth day of their occupation, Ammon Bundy already is talking about a proper time for his band of the self-righteous to go home. Hopefully, that will be soon and only via a bail hearing. Many of them, I suspect, soon will be stuck with long-term legal battles with the very government they hate regarding criminal charges that could put them in jail.
All for what? To make the ridiculous case that we should go back to letting the ranchers and loggers and miners do whatever they think best for the land? Sorry, but we can see how that worked out.
The online world is aflame with this story – my favorite a retort chiding the “maroons” who support Bundy. Some of these wingnuts wax poetic in support of the Constitution and patriots like Bundy. Others, just as nutty, claim the government should give warning and then send in drones to wipe out the lot of them.
Meanwhile, the ranchers who caused all this fuss, the Hammonds, went back to jail this week for four more years for their arson convictions. Anyone who thinks about it will wince at the apparent injustice of such a stiff penalty. It’s nearly impossible, however, to ever know the whole story.
The Hammonds had a long, apparently contentious, history with the federal agencies that manage the public land that they use and which surrounds their ranch. One thing for sure, a story like this is never as simple as some innocent ranchers burning some grassland. Nor does the fed’s renewed prosecution of the Hammonds completely pass the sniff test.
Last year, Oregon’s governor was forced to resign, shortly after easily winning re-election to a fourth term, in a scandal involving his live-in fiancé, the state’s “First Lady.” Following unseemly revelations of influence peddling, the U.S. Department of Justice rushed to take control of an investigation. U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall forced the state’s Attorney General to drop her already-underway investigation. Marshall never gave a reason for why she shut out the Attorney General. As it happens, Marshall was the same federal attorney whose aggressive actions sent the Hammonds back to jail for their four-year terms.
We can’t know what Marshall thinks of the consequences of her harsh prosecution of the Hammonds, since she’s no longer in her job. She resigned early last year under a cloud of personal scandal, being investigated for stalking a federal prosecutor who worked for her. Who knows how that all got started, but the poor guy must have been miserable. At the same time he was forced to file a complaint about his boss stalking him, he was under 24-7 armed protection because of threats to his life from the Mexican mafia for a case he was prosecuting. Incidentally, the guy’s wife is also a federal prosecutor. And Marshall’s husband is a judge.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And somehow, it all is connected in some strange way to Ammon Bundy and his gun-toting crazies and a national wildlife refuge established 108 years ago by Teddy Roosevelt to save waterfowl – particularly so people could hunt them. With guns.
So back to my friend’s question: “What the heck’s going on in Oregon?” I wish I knew. Finding the “truth” in a story like this is like peeling an onion – there’s always one more smelly layer.
See also my follow-up story:
"Blame the Mormons"
See also my follow-up story:
"Blame the Mormons"