In the aftermath of the arrests of Ammon Bundy and others a sort of denouement has overcome me. It is cathartic to see the militants arrested and to see the fiasco in Oregon slowly dissipate. It is tragic that someone died. But in the aftermath of this event one can’t help but see that there were real victims of the stunt pulled by the Bundy brothers, and they are the people of Harney County.
This morning I was going through photos of my oldest son for his school yearbook and the warm memories they conjured mixed with thoughts of residents in Harney County. They are people just like me, with children of their own, trying to make it in life. I can’t seem to stop thinking about them and some of things I have read.
One article that struck me in particular was in The Nation. It took note of the fact that many in Harney County are poor and feel disenfranchised and while none to my knowledge publicly supported the occupation of the refuge, the people were divided and getting torn apart by it.
They didn’t buy the Bundys’ claimed reasons for being there, they didn’t agree with their interpretation of the constitution, but they did understand some of the anger and did worry about the impact the occupation would have on their town and businesses from tourists watching from the outside.
The article ended by saying that after the news worthy events end, no one will pay attention to the poor people left in its wake.
It is a sad state of affairs that the poor have no voice in this country and that it takes poisonous drinking water or the actions of distorted militants to get some attention. Unfortunately, the author of the article is probably right; now that this is winding down, people will move on to other “hot” events and forget about Harney County – and that is tragic.
Over the last couple of weeks I have wondered if there is a way beyond breaking the law to draw attention to problems and I haven’t come up with much. There are the normal routes such as talking to local politicians, but for poor people, there seems to be little else they can do and there seems to be even fewer who care or are willing to go the distance to help. This is perhaps what makes civil disobedience so powerful and alluring.
The beauty of civil disobedience, (not to be confused with the armed resistance manifested by the Bundys) the act of breaking the law and accepting the penalty, is that recognition of the rule of law enables people to see the humanity of the plight of the person/people breaking it.
Most mainstream people cannot relate to breaking the law and so cannot relate to people who do it, and probably will never relate if the person breaking the law does not acquiesce to the punishment; but they can relate to a person or people who articulate problems and why they resorted to breaking the law to bring those issues to light.
While I am not a huge fan of cattle on public lands I am even less a fan of gentrification or disenfranchisement of poor rural people. My fear about our public lands is that they will become pristine playgrounds for the wealthy (take Vale, CO for example) if we are not careful.
Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful and pristine place with clean air, water, and abundant outdoor opportunities? What rural towns and ranchers have provided, I think, is a buffer between development and our public lands and may even provide environmental services that I am unaware of. Furthermore, as far as I know, no ranchers actively seek to keep people out of those public places.
Typically, when ranches go, development moves in. There are many cases of wealthy home owners moving in, jacking up the costs of living, and then restricting access.
There have got to be real solutions for rural people to thrive and continue. Their economies need to be diversified and they need to be able to continue in a sustainable way. A huge part of the future of rural communities is going to be tourism and recreation as more and more people want to enjoy public lands and as a result, they should be given financial help to develop that sector of their economy.
Not too long ago I had a discussion with Justin Fischer, the economic developer in Garfield County, Utah, where we were discussing these very issues. Garfield County is probably somewhat similar to Harney County in that a large portion of the county (94%) is federal land.
We went the rounds about the federal government, environmentalists, the economy, tourism and recreation, grazing, timber, and mining and at the end of it all what Fischer told me was that it is hard for a poor county to compete and to build a sustainable economy without help.
He said, “What can we, a very poor county, offer in terms of incentive that bigger counties cannot? We would love to diversify our economy, but that is a tremendous, costly challenge as we are competing against thousands of other communities nationwide, and we lack some of their assets.”
He went on to say, “A great deal of our means is spent in trying to prevent economic loss. The solution isn’t more tourism. We need a wide diversity of employment, and we need help to get there. Thinking we can bootstrap our way out of this is just as wrong as saying that a poor person should pull him/herself up by their bootstraps without a helping hand.”
I started brainstorming and asked him if it would help local communities to get a stimulus package when monuments get designated and if it would help to have a local hiring authority for federal jobs. He said that those things would help immensely; that is, those things would help in providing amenities for tourism and recreation and paychecks for people trying to raise their families and to stay in the county.
While it is easy to pick on the federal government, the states and Congress members are not blameless. Congress determines the budgets of land management agencies which puts limits on how many people they can hire, how many environmental impact statements can get done and how fast, and hinders people from being able to do their jobs such as road grading, prescribed burns, etc.
States often broker land swaps with the federal government and could broker deals that help rural communities. Furthermore, states and local counties have control over growth, growth incentives or requirements, and can establish regulations on builders and developers to buffer local people against rising living costs from wealthy new incomers.
Furthermore, what often happens at the local level is that farmers and ranchers are pressured by local officials to sell their property for development. This is happening in Washington County as grow, grow, grow seems to be the only value.
I believe that real solutions can be found and that people need to be willing to listen to concerns by people who have voices that are often ignored or overlooked. It shouldn’t take wealth, celebrity, or crime to be heard.
I am very interested in talking with people from Harney County. Please contact me if you are willing to talk about the local issues affecting you.
More on the political ecology (the associated connections between politics, economics, and the environment) of rural western towns to come.
Zoe Carpenter, The Nation. Inside the Bundy Brothers’ armed occupation: http://www.thenation.com/article/inside-the-malheur-wildlife-refuge-occupation/