Wednesday, January 06, 2016

In Oregon, Myth Mixes With Anger


TO outsiders, one of the puzzling aspects of the anti-government militia’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is its location. Twenty-five million birds a year visit the refuge in the high desert of southeastern Oregon, but few people have heard of it. Yet Malheur is a place of bitterly contested human histories that remain potent today.

Years ago, when I first visited the refuge, I stumbled upon five dead coyotes tossed across a trail, their necks sliced open, blood clotted on their fur, paws hacked off, entrails draining into the river. Ranchers on the edge of failure feel threatened by predators snatching away their calves, and some lash out against that threat. But these five dead coyotes signaled more than just economic anxiety — they were emblematic of past hatreds that are still a powerful force in the Malheur basin. Anger at predators, environmentalists and federal managers who threaten the mythic past of cowboys on the range is as strong there as anywhere in the West.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, many Western ranchers, miners and loggers felt increasingly threatened, partly by globalization, which created new competition, and partly by federal regulations that seemed to value wildlife more than people. What became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion gave locals a focus for their concern.

Environmentalists, they argued, were conspiring to destroy America, starting with rural communities. Many ranchers bitterly complained about the federal land management agencies. They felt powerless, hemmed in by policies they had little hand in shaping. They feared that economic gains were passing them by.

These complaints contain elements of truth: Rural communities in the West are poorer than urban communities, and environmental protections enacted since the 1980s have reduced grazing on federal lands. But locals told an interesting version of this history. Before the federal agencies came, they said, we lived in paradise. The grass was thick, the water was abundant and the towns were thriving. We were independent, working out our problems. When the feds came, they stole our resources, and our economies collapsed.

(More here.)


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