Letters from the West

Refuge standoff: Our federal public servants deserve better

Oregon Refuge occupation timeline

A group of anti-government ranchers and activists seized buildings at a rural Oregon federal wildlife refuge on January 2. The heavily-armed group drew criticism from locals and support from militia groups. On February 11, the last occupier turned
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A group of anti-government ranchers and activists seized buildings at a rural Oregon federal wildlife refuge on January 2. The heavily-armed group drew criticism from locals and support from militia groups. On February 11, the last occupier turned

When a longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee returned here from his Christmas holiday, he immediately was ordered to take his family and leave.

“We had heard there was going to be a Fish and Wildlife Service person taken hostage,” explained Jason Holm, assistant regional director for external affairs.

I spent a long weekend in Burns talking to people on all sides of the debate over the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I walked through the refuge headquarters compound, the streets of Burns and on refuge rangeland.

I heard claims of incompetence and tyranny aimed at federal employees by people rifling through those employees’ desks.

I talked on the telephone to the unnamed refuge employee who was told to leave, and I met face to face with one of the 100 or so BLM employees who stayed, working from their homes when possible or taking annual leave or administrative leave.

This BLM employee had come to Burns 28 years ago and decided to stay, burrowing in and getting involved in the civic life that holds our rural communities together. Neither of the employees I visited with deserved what the Bundys and the bands of militia roaming through southeast Oregon forced them to suffer through since November, when the protests began.

What makes the harassment, threats, intimidation, bullying and disrespect worse is that it happens routinely around the West. I saw it with firefighters just trying to do their job near Kamiah last summer, when armed landowners confronted them and told them to leave. I wrote about a similar incident near Riggins.

In the Riggins incident, the ranchers said they were not trying to intimidate the firefighters. But to many people, wearing a gun and being aggressive is quite threatening.

Rich and Iva Henderson, of Riggins, two of the occupiers we met when we toured the refuge headquarters Saturday, compared the Riggins incident with the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond. Those are the father-and-son ranchers whose convictions for starting a fire on the refuge sparked the protests and takeover that consumed the nation’s attention this past month.

The Hammonds’ case was held up as “tyranny” by the Bundy crowd and, frankly, many ranchers and others who thought forcing them back to prison to serve out mandatory minimum sentences was federal overreach. Still others who know them as friends said the Hammonds’ dislike for the federal government sometimes triggered bad behavior.

There’s blame to go around. I have seen bad behavior from federal employees. But it’s usually people who have few ties to their community or just are bad people. Period. You’ll always have some of those.

But they are rare, because most people who go into government service do it as a calling to public service. They love the land, the fish, the wildlife and the public they work with.

“The notion that on the ground federal land workers are some sort of jack-booted thugs out to take over others and their way of life is horrible and it’s nonsense,” said John Freemuth, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University.

“I just have to laugh at this,” said Freemuth, a former park ranger who has worked with lots of federal and state natural resources workers. “Except that it leads to the twisted paranoia that oozes out of the Bundys of this world.”

Rude behavior toward public servants isn’t reserved to people on the right or in the resources industry. I saw environmental activists hound foresters and range conservationists in the past like some people do biologists and ecologists today. It wasn’t long ago that ecoterrorism was the big fear in the forests and on the range. The right has no monopoly on the kind of people who’ll justify violence or extremism based on what they think are infallible beliefs.

Sure, sometimes federal folks have gone into the business of land management with the notion that they are the experts, and that collaboration and working with people somehow doesn’t make you a good manager. But that is changing really fast.

John Freemuth Andrus Center for Public Policy

Freemuth reminds us that the employees on the ground, the ones on the front line, are not usually the policymakers. The courts, Congress and the executive branch are usually the architects of the policy that employees take the heat for.

“Congress doesn’t fund these agencies like they should be funded, employees are overworked and they are not on the ground as much as they used to be,” Freemuth said.

In our small towns across Idaho and the West, as my BLM employee said, federal employees have spouses who are ranchers and loggers, and loggers and ranchers have spouses who are federal conservationists or other staffers. “You just go down the line; that’s how you are a part of the community,” he said. “You’re integrated.”

The men and women who work on our rangeland and in our forests, often alone in green and white pickup trucks way out in the boonies, need to know they won’t be held hostage to someone’s alternative view of the Constitution or their own brand of justice. The Burns siege should teach us that it’s time for a bipartisan salute to federal public servants.

The best words most federal workers heard Wednesday came from FBI Agent Greg Bretzing, who was talking about the arrest of eight occupiers and the death of another: “As the FBI demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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