Notes on the Malheur refuge occupation

Malheur_Wildlife_Refuge_(Harney_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(harDA0014)I don’t do a lot of current events commentary here, but there are occasions where it seems both useful and necessary. What follows is notes drawn from my responses to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, outside Burns, OR. They range from quips to more extended analysis and draw on my family connections to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, including a stint living on refuges much like Malheur in my extreme youth. I have tried not to rely on information that is not available elsewhere online.

I’m posting the material because it has garnered interest on social media, but also because I think that the question of anarchist alternatives to the federal lands is one worth taking up. An extension of my C4SS comments on “mutual extrication” and the “gift economy of property” is already in the works.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and all the problems of Harney County, are fifty miles from the middle of nowhere, but the issues that are really driving the conflict are the sort of things that we can examine much closer to home. Nearly all of us have experienced uncertain climate conditions and many of us have had very recent occasions to think about floodwater management. Given the very slow acceptance of decentralized methods of flood and storm-water management, I expect most of us think of these things as a responsibility of the government, when we think of the responsibility at all. Most of us don’t have to go too far to find clear evidence of the massive public works projects that have made agriculture and grazing possible in its present forms, but we also don’t have to go far to see clear evidence of the failures and limitations of our resource-management efforts to date. Agencies like BLM and USFWS have seldom sacrificed commercial interests to environmental ones, and when they have opposed immediate commercial interests, it has almost always been in the interest of preserving them in the long term.

As a USFWS brat and former refuge resident, I know more than a bit about all this first-hand. That upbringing no doubt led me along the path to anarchism, but it also gave me a fairly nuanced sense of what government does and does not, can and cannot, do in the real interest of “we, the people.” As a native and longtime resident of the American West, I also think I have a pretty clear sense of the fundamentally symbiotic relationship between our much-vaunted individualism and independence and the massive governmental subsidies that have made our very existence possible in its present form.

If this occupation was really just about “the Constitution,” then it would be based on an obviously naive and ridiculous misunderstanding of the stakes, not just in eastern Oregon, but all over the world. The attempt to avoid all the hard, important questions is undoubtedly what has led to conspiracy theories dominating the “defense” of the actions. But the simple explanation actually unravels almost immediately, and we’re left with a tangle of right-libertarian and capitalist concerns, elements of the militia movement and the “sagebrush rebellion,” real questions about the sustainability of agricultural and resource-management models, bound up with controversies about race, class, indigeneity, etc.

If you bother to engage, don’t accept any of the simple narratives. This is arguably either a senseless footnote to actually interesting stories, or it is an episode that requires careful unpacking and analysis.

One of the pieces of the conservative account regarding the Malheur occupation involves the USFWS allegedly flooding adjacent ranches in order to acquire the land. The flooding was actually one of those “100-year events” that we see a lot more frequently these days, which are the result of region-wide factors influencing rainfall, snow melt, infiltration capacity, etc. Again, none of the convenient, simple answers here are likely to be close to the truth.

You have to worry about America, when obviously a large chunk of the population thinks Rufus Ryker is Shane…

One of the quotes from the Malheur occupation that I have seen repeated frequently, without comment, is this, from Ryan Bundy: “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control…”

First, there don’t seem to have been any ranchers “kicked out of the area.” There were ranchers who suffered from the 100-year flood events in the 80s, and there are undoubtedly ranchers who have suffered or are suffering from the extreme drought in the area. There are some ranchers who have been informed that they could no longer graze cattle on the refuge itself, for which they have never paid grazing fees. The refuge is not grazing land, subject to the open range policies, and grazing is not compatible with the agency mandate, but virtually all federal land-management agencies have been extraordinarily permissive when it comes to the treatment of adjacent farms and ranches, so, contrary to the narrative of “oppression,” those private interests have been the recipients of free benefits at least potentially at odds with the mission of serving the general public. Land-management agencies necessarily have to pay greater attention to the macro-level concerns than most of us, but it is still, after all, easier to be nice to the neighbors than to fight them sometimes, particularly when the neighbors are armed and have no public mandate to consider. When it has been deemed necessary to end grazing on refuges in the PNW region, every effort has been made to do so as amicably as possible, with years of warning. There have apparently been a very few cases where orders to immediately enforce refuge mandates have come down from on high, but not from USFWS personnel at the refuge or regional level.

I’ve posted the executive order establishing the original “Lake Malheur Reservation” on my wall. In it, you can see the provision for “valid existing rights.”

The other point is that it is now explicit that the occupiers desire that “the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever.” And that’s probably the question we should all be focusing on, since any object lessons you desired regarding white privilege or the inconsistencies of constitutionalism and armed insurrection have almost certainly been established already.

In what possible way could closing down the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and presumably eventually the whole USFWS agency, be considered a good thing?

To answer that question you would need to understand a lot of issues, from the actual mandates and practices or various agencies to complex ecological and economic matters. Most of us don’t even have a good beginning at all that. I’m betting that the occupying force at Malheur doesn’t know much more than the average person, and is probably even less concerned than most with many of the big-picture concerns. But the occupiers have presented us with a fairly simple, stark choice: Who do you want to see manage the Malheur refuge, the refuge personnel or the armed occupiers? From my perspective, the choice is pretty simple. Think what you like about the various government land-management agencies, or government in general, but recognize that the “multiple use” mandates governing the management of virtually all federal lands demand not just big-picture thinking and willingness to compromise, but the skills to put workable compromises into action. The history of federal land-use management is not a particular glorious one, but arguably the greatest blemishes on it have come when the public trust has been sacrificed to private interest. The notion that surrendering the federal lands to private interest will result in a better management of the resources on which we all ultimately depend seems like the most foolish of fantasies.

And for those of my anarchist and libertarian friends who might consider even this tepid defense of government agencies shocking, the lesson should be clear: Federal land management at the very least sets a bar that any anti-governmental alternative will have to exceed. And it will have to do so without the opportunities afforded by prior control, eminent domain, federal taxation, etc. “Post-scarcity,” should it come about, still isn’t going to wipe away downstream effects or make fragile ecosystems any more resilient in the face of industrial land-use. We can barely have a conversation about property without falling back on useless dogma or “we’ll worry about that later” escapism. In that, we’re very, very mainstream.

The bottom line is that all of us have to do better. Maybe the worst thing about the Malheur situation is that, if the occupiers have a laughable approach to all these complex issues of law and land use (and they almost certainly do), we aren’t much better off in that regard.

I’m very glad that Malheur refuge personnel have all been out of harm’s way during the armed occupation, but I suspect that their absence from the story has made it easier to treat the occupation as victimless and to take claims about the peacefulness of the Hammonds and Bundys at face value.

For myself, Malheur is enough like places I lived as a child for this all to feel a bit like a home invasion.

I was channeling my 80s-90s academic self, the American Culture Studies scholar, and applying a little myth-symbol type analysis to the Malheur narratives today. One of the things that strikes me is that we’re seeing a scenario familiar from about a gazillion westerns, in the context of which the occupiers at Malheur seem to fit remarkably simply into the role of “black hats.”

Is there a segment of America that has always rooted for the cattle barons against the settlers, and hopes Shane never comes back? I wonder who the militia members identify with in “Hang Em High.”

Unless the debate somehow turns to the details of land management, the back-and-forth about the events at Malheur can hardly be anything but a discussion about how we would prefer to define particular hot-button terms and what myths we prefer to those complex realities.

Are the armed occupiers “terrorists”? It’s glaringly obvious that there is no objective answer for that, and we are left discussing whether or not we would prefer to refer to them as such. This is where the comparisons to other events are useful, but certainly not definitive. We suspect that the events at Malheur may well fall “within the envelope,” given the wide extension of government definitions and public perception, but that extension probably shouldn’t make us sleep better at night. And if that suspicion riles you up, as perhaps it should, it’s probably not BLM that should be the target of your anger.

Are the armed occupiers “peaceful”? Well, they haven’t shot anyone yet, but they haven’t ruled it out. Some pro-gun activists seem to think that everyone should be comfortable with an overtly armed society, but no activist, however just or reasonable their position may be, has any right to demand that others not feel threatened by their activism. And while we are making strategic use of comparisons, it seems worth asking how we should compare the “peaceful” actions of armed occupiers who attempt to influence policy be exploiting other people’s desire to avoid violence (and this is clearly at least part of what is happening) with those of unarmed protesters willing to confront armed authority. I would expect, even hope, that many of the libertarians who have spoken of the “peacefulness” of the Malheur occupation would balk at praising the “peacefulness” of military occupations or police forces that “keep the peace” through the threat of force. And the Hammonds? Well, they didn’t actually rip anyone’s head off and shit down their throat. That’s something, I guess, but, while we’re talking about preferences, I’m not sure it’s worth calling their actions “peaceful.”

So what about defending people’s occupational “way of life”? Had I followed in my father’s footsteps, the occupiers would be threatening mine. There are families on some national wildlife refuges, like mine was in my extreme youth. The workers on some refuges do essentially the same tasks as their neighbors, except that they do it in order to balance the needs of those neighbors, those of migratory wildlife and those of all the rest of us who, whether we like it or acknowledge it or not, benefit from land, game and resource management. As it turns out, of course, I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, largely because it had become increasingly hard to do the job. Instead, I went on to careers in academics and bookselling, where, let’s face it, the preservation of my occupational way of life has not been of very great concern to anyone not in the same rotten situation. I do notice that lots of people have some investment in the mythology of the book trade, but I’m afraid most of what I see has about as much connection to my real struggles as “Shane” or “The Big Valley” has to the realities of western land management.

Has the government systematically “harassed” the Hammonds or driven other ranchers away? Grazing rights have not remained static, and certainly the enforcement of laws and agency mandates has not remained static. Neither has anything else, beyond some myths. The almost complete silence about extreme droughts and 100-year floods has enabled people to imagine that the only thing standing in anyone’s way in Harney County is the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. You don’t have to believe in anthropogenic global warming or put any particular significance on the patterns of extreme weather in order to understand that extreme weather is real and a factor in all sorts of aspects of our lives. Just step outside, or think about stepping outside over the last few months, and most of us will be able to imagine obstacles as formidable as government regulations. We have to start actually getting specific to trace all the reasons why range management might be important, and not just to ranchers, but we can certainly at least pretty quickly get to the point where the simple “government destroying rural America” narrative begins to show its weaknesses.

[There’s more to say. We’ll see if i find the time and energy to say it.]


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

1 Comment

  1. “And for those of my anarchist and libertarian friends who might consider even this tepid defense of government agencies shocking, the lesson should be clear: Federal land management at the very least sets a bar that any anti-governmental alternative will have to exceed.”

    Just to say, I agree with your comments and discussion. Life is complex and anarchists need to recognise that (part of my dislike of propertarianism is that they have a “one size fits all” approach). In terms of reforms in the here-and-now, it is clear that neo-liberal governments make things worse for the majority of people when the “roll-back” the state — what gets me is how propertarians side with the government against its subjects during austerity (as per the whole “why are anarchists joining anti-austerity protests?” thing).

    Any libertarian solutions need to be better than the alternative, very true. So, for example, abolishing the welfare state and ending all legal rights to organise will, undoubtedly, produce a road of private serfdom (it has to a large — look at the impact of the Tory anti-union laws in the UK).

    I would expect that any anti-government solution to land management would involve commons and community management. I would expect that the protesters (and propertarians) would be just as opposed to that as to the current system (see Rothbard’s comments on Native American common land ownership). The shade of Locke hangs heavy over all this — suffice to say, to privatise these resources state intervention would be needed as it always has.

    Sorry, just a few words (probably in need of proper expansion) in support.

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