A year after the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge, new
and old players wage battle over what and whom the lands are for.
By KIRK JOHNSON APRIL 14, 2017 NYT
BURNS, Ore. — A year ago, this corner of rural Oregon became center stage in the drawn-out drama over public lands when armed militia leaders seized a national wildlife refuge, arguing that the government had too much control of land in the West.
Now that President Trump is in office, people here and in other parts of the 11 states where 47 percent of the landmass is publicly owned are watching to see what he will do on everything related to public lands, from coal mining and cattle grazing to national monuments and parks. In Burns, some ranchers and others are feeling emboldened, hopeful that regulatory rollbacks by the federal government will return lands to private use and shore up a long-struggling economy.
But the change in administration has also spawned a countermovement of conservatives and corporate executives who are speaking up alongside environmentalists in defense of public lands and now worry about losing access to hunting grounds and customers who prize national parks and wildlife.
In Idaho, for example, a deal to put thousands of acres into private ownership — exactly the sort of transaction that the militia leader brothers, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, had espoused in seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — was met with fierce opposition, by no less than a group of conservative outdoorsmen.
CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times
The deal had been in the works for years and was backed by Republican elected officials, who said that adding new taxable private land would generate business activity and property tax revenue.
But the proposal, to the surprise of many people on both sides, hit a wall with people like Ray Anderson, a machine shop owner in the tiny community of Grangeville, Idaho, who raised money and helped a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts kill the plan and boot out of office a county commissioner and state senator who had supported it. Mr. Anderson said he feared that Idaho County, rural and in need of cash, would encourage private owners to develop the lands, or put up fences to keep out hunters and fishermen like him.
“I’m a businessman and I’m a conservative, but nothing about the plan seemed to make sense,” Mr. Anderson said. “Where I grew up I was told that public lands will be public lands forever.”
In Montana, access to public lands for recreation shaped last fall’s governor’s race, with the incumbent, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, staking out a position in defense of public lands and portraying his Republican opponent as captive to private interests that would put up gates and fences. Mr. Bullock won.
In Utah a new fight over lands has energized the outdoor recreation industry.
Earlier this year, organizers behind a big outdoors trade show — held in Salt Lake City for the last 20 years — announced they would move the show’s location in 2019 because of the opposition by the state and its congressional delegation to the creation of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, endorsed by President Barack Obama in his final months in office. The convention’s organizer, Outdoor Retailer, said in a joint statement with two trade groups representing hundreds of companies that they would seek a new location “that upholds our industry’s core values around the importance of America’s public lands.
The outdoor outfitter Patagonia has made Bears Ears, about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, part of a national advertising campaign, linking its brand to land rights with a series of videos and sponsorship messages on public television.
“We intend to keep the pressure on until we are confident public lands are protected,” said Rose Marcario, the president and chief executive of Patagonia. “Patagonia and many other companies in the outdoor industry are not going to stand by and watch as elected officials denigrate our public lands. These lands are the backbone of our business,” she said in an email.
A conservative group in Utah called the Sutherland Institute has fired back with its own television ad, urging President Trump and Congress to revoke or at least reduce the size of the new monument.
The ad features a series of children talking about what they want to be when they grow up — ranchers, doctors, teachers — underscoring a message that public land designations can bring economic harm, too. “When somebody takes away your land and livelihood, can you really be anything you want to be?” a little girl says into the camera.
Battles continue in court as well. Although Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and four of their followers were acquitted of all charges related to the occupation last October by a federal jury in Portland, they still face trial in Nevada this spring, along with their father, Cliven, on charges related to a standoff in 2014 at the Bundy Ranch.
Some scholars who study public lands said the new debates echoed the recent dynamic in Washington over health care reform. The long-held Republican promise by members of Congress from Utah and other Western states to reverse decades of federal lands ownership and restore control to states and counties — like the repeal of Obamacare — becomes harder to keep when the bills that would achieve that end are more than just symbolic statements.
And the possibility of a land reform victory for conservatives has in turn galvanized people who oppose the idea and had not taken it seriously before, said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University who specializes in Western land issues.
“There’s just more and more alarm from people ranging the gamut from sportsmen to environmentalists and just ordinary folks who aren’t that political but like their access, thinking that they could lose a lot if the states gained ownership,” he said.
But supporters of Mr. Bundy and his ideas have also felt energized in the last year as the election of President Trump brought much of the anti-government rhetoric militia leaders preached into the mainstream.
Here in Harney County, where about three-fourths of the land is federally owned, jobs and economic growth have always been tied to industries like logging and cattle grazing, rather than the tourism that some public lands supporters hold out as an alternative pathway for struggling rural communities. The Bundys, their supporters said, made those connections clear — that getting back onto the land for older Western uses creates jobs — even if the legal means to getting there was murky.
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about where its public lands policies might go, with expressions of support at times for recreational access, but also moves to open up more lands to industry, especially for coal exploration and production, and proposed budget cuts for federal agencies that manage those lands.
In Burns, the county seat with 2,800 people, a decline in timber cutting in the national forests hurt the economy and forest health too, said Brenda Smith, the executive director of the High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit group that tries to bring together government agencies and local people over land disputes. Since the events at the Malheur Refuge and last fall’s election, she said it was a much tougher conversation.
People suspicious of government have stiffened in their resolve to say no, Ms. Smith said, even when they agree that an outcome could be positive for the community. “There are people who see collaboration as a threat,” she said.
Butch Eaton, a retired carpenter here in Burns who stood with the occupiers at Malheur, said he felt more optimistic now, especially since the election, that the federal lands presence in Oregon and across the West was waning. “People are just tired of being told what to do all the time, and they’re saying, ‘These are our lands.’ I’m feeling more hopeful for my grandkids,” Mr. Eaton said.
The land itself here, meanwhile, is undergoing a kind of healing. At Dan Nichols’s ranch, about 20 miles from the refuge, rains pelted down on a recent afternoon as 500 pregnant cows prepared to give birth in the pastures outside his century-old farmhouse. The drought that has parched the area for years, said Mr. Nichols, a former Harney County commissioner, is abating.
The Nichols place depends on public lands, with about 95 percent of the grass that the cattle eat grown on federal rangeland, for which Mr. Nichols said he happily paid the grazing fees. But even he draws the line at talk of expanded protections to the land, through wilderness or national monument designations that would restrict agriculture.
“Public land is supposed to be for multiple use,” he said. “That is all too often forgotten.”