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Sagebrush Rebellion Politics

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I have resisted commenting on the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge so I could gather my thoughts on what is an important topic to me. That this is happening at an extremely busy time personally doesn’t help me write what should be a long essay, some op-eds, etc. For me the Bundys and their idiot supporters are inherently mockable as the sewers of the American West are evidently running toward Burns at this moment. Shakezula’s posts have explored this side of the question here at LGM and I don’t see too much reason to talk about them.

This is all a little more personal to me than most of you because I spent time growing up around them. My aunt and uncle had a ranch way up in Wallowa County, Oregon, bordering the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, not too far from where Oregon meets Washington and Idaho. My dad, who was by far the youngest child, spent his summers working the ranch up there and we went there when I was a kid. The politics of the transforming rural West away from the natural resource based economy of the 20th century and into the tourism and tech based economy of the 21st played an enormous role in my life growing up and make up the core of my scholarship.

More interesting to me than the Bundys is the Hammond family, who instigated this mess by poaching deer and then setting wildfires to cover it up on two separate occasions. That they thought this was a good idea shows that they are idiots–after all, setting wildfires in the drylands of the West is tantamount to suicide and murder given how fast they can spread. And indeed one of the fires did nearly kill people. The Hammonds themselves are violent extremists with a long history of violating their grazing leases on the Malheur refuge, where the leases should be bought up and retired in any case, and of threatening violence to government officials. These people are horrible.

But it’s also worth noting that people like the Bundys and Hammonds are also the extremist wing of a huge amount of sentiment among whites in the rural West. The Hammonds and many others like them in the rural West have created a history that they are the rightful occupiers of land that they own. This is the core of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Never mind that they don’t own very much of that land–it’s federal land. Never mind that their lifestyle on the land of running cattle, often in ecologically sensitive places, has one of this nation’s biggest forms of welfare for more than a century. And of course never mind that the the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is on stolen Paiute land. This is their land. These people see themselves as the descendants of pioneers, carving a living out of a hard landscape. That project always had a complicated relationship with the government. The ancestors of the Hammonds and of my family wanted the government to kick out Indians, provide cheap land, and get their crops to market. They also wanted absolutely no regulation on their activities and assumed that even after the establishment of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, that government should work for the ranchers and loggers. And for most of their history, those agencies did, often leading to severe environmental degradation.

But this began to change by the 1970s, with the rise of a very different Northwest and the rise of a national environmental movement. Bipartisan environmental legislation passed that would begin to hold ranchers accountable for their ecological footprint. The EPA, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other legislation began to give environmentalists tools to start ensuring a clean environment for all Americans. Young suburbanites grew up spending their youthful leisure in nature during the 1950s and 60s and as they grew up, they began to bring a strong environmental sensibility to national environmental politics, creating the demand for saving old-growth forest and creating national wildlife refuges. The Northwest in particular became known as Ecotopia, to borrow from Ernest Callenbach’s influential if terrible 1975 novel of that name and people from around the country began moving to Oregon and Washington to enjoy the natural splendors of the region. They didn’t spend much time out in Burns or Harney County, but they did begin to influence state politics and the state legislature. That so many of these young people came from influential backgrounds and, moving out of their hippie phase, went back to law school or created tech companies in the Portland area provided powerful legal and economic engines that were opposed to the ranchers’ and timbermen’s interests and that began to be reflected in state politics. Relatively suddenly, these rural westerners found the ground shifting from below them. When combined with larger economic changes–mechanization and the exportation on unprocessed timber to Japan in timber and the rise of feedlots and the global beef market for the ranchers–the world began spinning out of control. For both, environmentalists and the government were far easier to blame than complicated social and economic forces.

Nancy Langston provides some key history of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and also contextualizes the Sagebrush Rebellion. I will build on her analysis here.

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.

The implication was clear: If they got rid of the federal government, they’d have control over their land and lives again.

Basically the West has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, as have the rest of the nation. And as have whites around the nation generally, rural white Westerners have created mythology of better days in the past to explain why things have gotten bad for them. In many ways, this is not too different from the white-working class mythology of a better past that has fostered their support for Trump or for Christian conservative mythology of a moral past that has moved them against abortion and gay rights. The belief that the past was better is not only powerful but impervious to actual facts as to what the past is like and why things really have changed. The reality is that even if the government was to leave and turn all the land over to individual farmers, prosperity would not revolt. Areas like southeast Oregon have been violent and poor ever since whites started living there. None of the broader social and economic trends would change. But the environment would be devastated. These ranchers might blame the government for reintroducing wolves or protecting birds or demanding grazing permits (even if heavily subsidized), but their economic way of living is irrelevant and antiquated. Yet despite words about the free market and government interference, when environmental groups began buying up grazing permits on public lands and retiring them, cattlemen’s organizations flipped out and made this illegal because all of a sudden the supposed “free market” threatened their cherished government-protected industry, which is what they really want.

Everything I am saying here is opposed to the Hammonds and opposed to the ranchers’ position on grazing rights, wolves, and environmentalism, not to mention their view of themselves. And yet, I also think there is something a little sad here. These are the dying protests of a people whose of way of life is becoming increasingly irrelevant. And while the Bundys and Hammonds are menaces, we at least have to ask whether the chopping up of these ranches into developments so the urban wealthy can have second homes in the West is really any better for the region’s environment? This is one area where greens and ranchers have found common ground, because ranchettes and exurban development is disastrous for wildlife and the for the landscape. So what replaces the Hammonds when they finally disappear is a question we also need to ask ourselves, while we are mocking their awful actions.

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