The new year begins with the media taking a nonstory and blowing it up into front-page stuff in The New York Times and the lead story of CNN. The story concerns a band of armed know-nothings from Nevada who have taken over the visitors center at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
I have spent a lot of time in that area over the years. We visit there each spring and each fall relishing an area generally without cellphone service and more cattle than people. As a result, I have gotten to know a number of area ranchers and county officials quite well. I also know the area’s history. And when you put that all together, it is little wonder that Harney County’s local officials and ranchers want nothing to do with these interlopers.
The catalyst for this effort is the sentencing of two local ranchers on a charge of arson for setting range fires on federal land. Just as people in Idaho’s Owyhee desert and Clearwater Valley take the threat of fire very seriously after major fires this past summer, range fires are also a major threat in the high desert of Harney County. The Miller Homestead Fire in that area in 2012 burned 160,000 acres and forced the evacuation of the community of Frenchglen.
The Nevada group says it is prepared to occupy the facility until federal land in the area is returned to state and local governments. That is the first hint that these folks did no homework before staging their takeover.
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In 1876, Dr. Hugh Glenn, a successful California rancher, dispatched one of his employees, Pete French, with 1,200 head of cattle to be trailed to Oregon in search of pasture land. French found it in southeastern Oregon. Forming a partnership called the French Glenn Company, eventually the firm owned more than 70,000 acres of land and 45,000 head of cattle. But, just as today there are protesters upset with the federal government, in 1897 there were homesteaders upset with Pete French and his control of so much land. On Dec. 26, 1897, one of those upset homesteaders, Ed Oliver, pulled a gun on French and killed him.
The property was eventually purchased by Swift and Company. By 1935, they determined that it was unprofitable and sold 64,717 acres to the federal government for $675,000. This is now most of the land that makes up the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The land — purchased by the federal government from private owners — that the protesters think should be given to state and local governments.
There are a couple of other things the protesters seem to be oblivious to:
▪ Though the land is designated a federal refuge, it has continued to be managed as productive agricultural land. The series of canals and ditches originally developed by Pete French are still used to distribute water throughout the refuge, where the huge expanses of natural hay that originally attracted French continue to grow and are cut and bailed by local ranchers to feed their cattle during the winter.
▪ There are also ranchers who have taken advantage of the flow of tourists visiting the refuge each year.
The Jenkins family runs the Round Barn visitors center, which has an expansive inventory of books, western wear and other consumer items. They also operate a commercial tour service.
The Thompson family owns and operates the historic Diamond Hotel in the center of the refuge. It is an important supplement to their ranching income and a major attraction for tourists visiting the refuge. And there are other ranching families who have also become part of the area’s tourism economy.
But, perhaps most importantly, most residents of Harney County aren’t appreciative of outsiders coming in and trying to run their lives. That applies not only to external governmental forces, but also to out-of-area private citizens, whether they are well-intentioned environmentalists or armed protesters occupying federal property.
I’ve spent some memorable evenings sitting with my friend Dan Nichols out at his ranch enjoying a finger or two of single malt Scotch. Nichols is a longtime Harney County commissioner and through him I have had the opportunity to obtain a fairly good understanding of the sensitivities of the ranchers in the county.
In the Monday story in The New York Times, Nichols was quoted: “This county isn’t supportive of what’s being done here at all. Once again, it’s a bunch of those who live without the county telling us what we need to do, how we need to be doing it, and the repercussions if we don’t.”
My guess is that if the national media would pack up and go back to the East Coast, this group of renegades would quickly dissipate and go back to doing more productive things. And they will. Just wait until they have spent part of a winter in the high desert country of Harney County, Ore.
Boise’s Martin Peterson is a longtime observer of Idaho politics and a member of the Statesman editorial board. He is retired.