Congressman Greg Walden

Representing the 2nd District of Oregon

Op-Ed: "Speaking out for rural Oregon"

January 12, 2016
Op-Eds

OP-ED COLUMN: "Speak out for rural Oregon"

by Rep. Greg Walden

In recent weeks, the people of Harney County have become no stranger to national headlines. On Jan. 3, a group of armed protesters overtook a federal facility in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. And on Jan. 5, Dwight and Steve Hammond, father and son ranchers from Harney County who were convicted of arson for setting a backfire that burned 139 acres of federal land, reported to prison to serve the remainder of a mandatory five-year sentence.

While these stories played out across every major media outlet, it’s important to understand what is driving this anger and what steps we can take to improve the situation.

The thread that ties the Hammond family’s case together with the calls of those who took over the Refuge is decades of frustration, arrogance and betrayal that has contributed to the mistrust of the federal government.

Too many people often don’t understand the culture and the lifestyle of the great American West — and how much the ranchers and farmers who live in this vast, beautiful, harsh landscape care about the environment, their children’s futures, and about America and the Constitution. Nor do they realize how hard they work to produce the food we eat. We’re seeing now the extent they will go to in order to defend all that.

While I understand their passion, I cannot condone the actions of the armed protesters, led largely by people who are not from our state. They’ve made their point loud and clear, and local community leaders, including many ranchers, have asked them to leave. They should do so.

The day after the Hammonds went to prison, I went to the U.S. House floor intending to give a five-minute speech on what was unfolding in Harney County. But when decades of my own pent up frustration with the federal government’s treatment of rural Oregonians came to the surface, I spoke before my colleagues for nearly half an hour. (You can watch my full speech at www.walden.house.gov/speech).

In my years representing the people of Oregon’s 2nd District, I have worked with local ranchers and the citizens of Eastern Oregon to resolve disputes, to find solutions and to create a more cooperative spirit and partnership with the federal agencies. After all, more than half the 2nd District is under federal management, or lack thereof.

The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act is a prime example of those cumulative efforts. But after it was signed into law in 2000, little by little, the agencies decided to reinterpret it and follow it at their own convenience, or ignore the law altogether. At the suggestion of local ranchers, the law created the first cow-free wilderness in the United States, but the tradeoff was a legal requirement for the federal government to provide the fencing. And yet bureaucrats within the Bureau of Land Management wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t follow the law. They told ranchers they had to build the fence. When I pointed out their error, they basically told me to stuff it. When I provided them with the documentation from more than a decade before that proved the intent of Congress, they doubled down. And finally, when I got Congress to pass a restatement of the original intent, they said they’d review it.

I don’t get angry very often, but this arrogance really got to me. And while there are very good federal workers in our communities who do follow the law, and do work cooperatively to find solutions, it only takes a few of the others to cause us to lose faith.

A similar experience is taking place across the West through the so-called travel management plans. Originally intended to minimize damage from off road vehicles, it quickly became a powerful tool to close roads and shut people out of their forests.

What happened in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is a classic case in point. After years of community meetings, public workshops and incredible efforts to update the government’s faulty maps, a forest supervisor decided she knew better. Her choice of a management plan was such an affront that more than 900 people packed a meeting in LaGrande in protest. I, too, was incensed and called upon the Forest Service to withdraw the plan, and they did. But the damage was done. How can people be expected to have faith in a public process when they see outcomes like these?

Meanwhile, other threats loom on these same people. From the onerous “waters of the United States” rules, to threats of more national monuments, the federal government is aggressively trying to get cattle off the range and people off their public lands.

Right now, it’s strongly rumored that the Obama administration will declare more national monuments, including one in Malheur County, next to Harney County. It could be up to 2.5 million acres — bigger than Yellowstone National Park. Ranchers and community leaders are being told either agree to a big wilderness area or plan on getting a monument shoved down your throat. Is it any wonder we feel our way of life is threatened by our own government? If the president wants to help reduce the tension, and try to restore a bit of trust, he would publicly back off this proposal.

The Hammonds made a mistake and went to prison for five years for lighting a backfire that burned 139 acres of federal land. We all know fire is a tool on the range to deal with invasive species and to stop other fires. In 2012, more than a million acres burned in Harney County alone. All too often, I’ve met with ranchers who were burned out by backfires they say should never have been set by the agencies. And while I have the greatest respect for the power of a fire, and the courage and talent of firefighters, they make mistakes, too.

The Hammonds were tried and convicted under a law written after the Oklahoma City bombing. The presiding judge in the case made clear that its penalties when applied to a fire on the high desert of Eastern Oregon didn’t make sense. But a court found he lacked the authority to invoke a lesser sentence.

We need to revisit the 1996 law that landed the Hammonds with a punishment disproportionate to the severity of the crime. I’m working with my colleagues to do just that.

We need to have the president understand that more monuments may bring cheers from certain companies and communities, but in reality they leave behind more mistrust and mismanagement.

And those not familiar with the high desert of the West need to understand what we face before they quickly condemn the frustration and anger that is so evident.

Greg Walden represents Oregon’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.