28 Jan 2016: Opinion

Beyond the Oregon Protests:
The Search for Common Ground

Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place of confrontation, the Malheur wildlife refuge is actually a highly successful example of a new collaboration in the West between local residents and the federal government.

by nancy langston

The standoff with militant extremists at an Oregon wildlife refuge, which erupted into violence and arrests this week, stands in stark contrast to the new sense of collaboration between local residents and public land managers in the West. The militants claimed that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge symbolized federal tyranny over public lands. But for many locals the refuge exemplified just the opposite: a successful community-based, collaborative partnership with the government. Not one local rancher had heeded the armed militants’ call to join their protest and rip up their federal grazing leases.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Anti-government militia leader Ammon Bundy speaks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.

The plan, following an approach increasingly being implemented on Western public lands, uses innovative techniques suggested by local community members. Cattle grazing, for example, is encouraged as a method for controlling invasive plants that threaten the refuge — an experiment that will be rigorously monitored by participants. Since ecological conditions change, the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.

This requires a great deal of flexibility, which addresses a core frustration ranchers have had with federal lands. Decisions had become bogged down in rules, environmental regulations, and litigation, causing even the smallest of changes to take years to implement. Collaborative plans devolve much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants, allowing for
Collaborative plans devolve much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants.
responsiveness to changing ecological conditions.

Most community members want to encourage these new collaborative conservation processes, not return to the violent conflicts of the past. Georgia Marshall, a Harney County rancher whose family has been grazing livestock on Malheur Refuge for generations, spoke for many when she addressed a packed town meeting and told the militants to go home: “I have seen the progress we have made in this community compared to what we went through years ago…. Let’s not destroy what we’re doing.”

Thirty years ago, such collaborations among ranchers and federal agencies were rare. When I first moved to the West in 1986 to work on a wildlife refuge in Arizona, we thought cattle were the enemy of wildlife. We hiked along unfenced streams where herds of cattle loitered in drying creek beds. Cowpats littered the stream banks, and dirt loosened by hooves sloughed into the water, clogging fish gills. In the uplands, cattle-trampled bird nests, and erosion from their hooves encouraged invasive species such as cheatgrass. When we saw bad grazing practices, we blamed all ranchers rather than the careless few. To heal the resource, we practiced top-down conservation, implementing programs developed thousands of miles away. Sometimes this worked; more often, it just led to conflict and stasis.

Jeff Scorn via Flickr
A view of Steens Mountain from the Buena Vista Overlook at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1993, the Malpai Borderlands Group changed all this. Along the border between Arizona and New Mexico, ranchers, conservationists, and federal agencies came together to create an innovative conservation partnership that shifted the views of many environmentalists about grazing. The first core concern of the Malpai Borderland Group was ecological. Decades of fire suppression meant that shrubs were invading grasslands, hurting wildlife and livestock forage, and harming the resiliency of watersheds. Thirty-five neighbors came together and created fire management maps for over a million acres. Since those initial meetings, the Malpai Borderlands Group has developed grass-banking programs to help ranchers share pastures to reduce overgrazing during droughts; re-seeding programs to restore rangelands; and scientific experiments to devise the best rotational grazing strategies for arid lands. Even more impressive, the Malpai Borderlands Group has helped former foes understand that they have much in common: a love for the land, and a desire to keep open spaces open.

Across the West, federal managers soon realized that local communities, not just outside experts, should be involved in making decisions on public lands — and that includes ranchers and loggers as well as hunters and anglers. Yes, too many cattle can harm grasslands and riparian areas when they’re poorly managed — allowed to graze along creeks when the soils are still wet (thus compacting soils), and eating annual grasses before they have a chance to set seed and reproduce. But managed grazing that keeps cattle rotating through pastures can be an excellent tool for restoration. Western grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, which means they thrive with disturbance from grazing. Cattle differ from native bison and elk in many ways. But with close attention to plant growth and soil moisture, grazing can foster grassland diversity, store carbon in soils, encourage the growth of grasses along creeks, and improve habitat for endangered birds. Doing this well requires specific local knowledge. Ranchers who work and live on the land often know the place and its limits better than people whose knowledge was gained in distant ecosystems.

These successes at community-based conservation, notably at Malheur, have sparked similar collaborations across the region such as the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership. Once abundant across much of the West, sage-grouse populations are in trouble. The spread of invasive weeds such as cheatgrass fueled extremely intense fires that destroyed grouse habitat. Managers tried hard to suppress these fires, but fire suppression meant juniper and other conifers expanded, shrinking sage-grouse habitat even more. Fires, invasive species, and juniper expansion aren’t just bad for grouse; they also threaten ranching operations that need healthy native grasslands.

Ranchers feared that if sage-grouse were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, new regulations would constrain their operations. The High Desert Partnership in eastern Oregon brought together 53 ranchers on 320,000 acres who developed innovative practices to restore
Collaboration works, which is why the armed occupiers of Malheur garnered very little local support.
grouse habitat. “We started saying what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” Tom Sharp, a rancher, told a local paper. Ranchers have agreed to take steps on private land to protect grouse, removing invasive weeds and uprooting junipers. On public lands, ranchers and federal agencies are collaborating to control fires and restore native grasses. The agreement, reached last September, has helped convince the Interior Department to refrain from listing sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

In Oregon’s Klamath Basin, collaborative processes brought together groups that had been battling over limited water for decades. Farmers and ranchers needed the Klamath River’s water to irrigate crops and the power from its dams to pump that water into irrigation ditches. But commercial fishermen and four American Indian tribes needed the same water to restore fisheries habitat. The dams blocked passage for salmon, cutting them off from most of their historic spawning territory. After years of negotiation, farmers agreed to reduce crop acreage and consume less water in return for predictability, while the tribes agreed to allow farmers to divert some water in return for dam removal. Unfortunately, at the last moment Oregon Congressman Greg Walden — who had lavishly praised the process — scuttled the deal to appease his Republican colleagues in Washington. The lesson from this failure of collaboration, among so many successes, is that politicians, just like community members, conservationists, and federal agencies, must act in good faith with locals.

The Malheur refuge, located in the harsh high deserts of the Great Basin, is a jewel in the federal refuge system — a watery paradise for millions of migratory birds, a place where streams meander into a maze of wetlands, and vast blue-green salty seas teem with life. Before President Theodore Roosevelt created the refuge in 1908, egrets were on the verge of extinction; duck populations were crashing. Malheur’s restoration means a richer world for all of us. Most residents of Harney County are proud of the refuge and its role in sustaining migratory birds for all Americans. They’re also proud of the progress they’ve made in dealing with federal land managers.

Collaboration works, which is why the armed occupiers of Malheur garnered very little local support for their antics. The lesson of Malheur is that community-based conservation offers hope for a future that sustains wildlife as well as rural communities. Rather than viewing the refuge as symbol of confrontation, Americans can take pride in it as a symbol of democratic principals in action, as well as natural beauty.

POSTED ON 28 Jan 2016 IN Biodiversity Policy & Politics Science & Technology North America 


I am struck by the one-sided nature of this posting. I see no mention of the floor speech by Rep. Greg Walden, the congressman who represents Harney County, Oregon, and who was a leading figure in arranging the "collaborative approach" cited here.

In his speech, Walden specifically detailed the ways that the Bureau of Land Management ignored the law that formed the Steens Mountain Wilderness area, which together with the adjoining Malheur National Wildlife Refuge comprises the area that Nancy Langston promotes as a success story.


Ms. Langston, with all due respect to your credentials, do you ever get out of your office? Among other things, I'd point out that Harney County, Oregon is more than twice the size of all of Connecticut.

Have you been to the area? Have you ridden the range with any of the ranchers? Do you have a ground-level understanding of what they do? There is no shortage of Easterners with opinions, but it's a very different story when it comes to actual experience and familiarity.

Merely attending a conference in Portland doesn't count, nor does a little field trip to talk to whoever's in charge at a BLM office. This posting strikes me all all theory, and no small amount of bureaucratic propaganda dressed up as academic research. But the connection to what actually happens on the ground? Not quite so sure of that.
Posted by C.P. on 28 Jan 2016

Not too convincing. The facts from the Great Basin do not agree with the assumptions made in the article. Juniper does not invade cheatgrass. The basic problem, however, is that you have to fudge the facts if you want to justify cattle grazing. As we stand here in the depths of the great human-made mass extinction, we have to consider that compromise does not always equal success.
Posted by Garry Rogers, PhD on 28 Jan 2016

So, Gary Rogers, you want to end cattle grazing. Good luck with that. Look, if you're a vegan, fine. It's your choice, and in America people should be able to eat what they want, or not eat what they don't want.

But please manage your own diet, not everyone else's.

Posted by on 28 Jan 2016

The Oregon Standoff represented an Out Of
Control Corporate Play on Cattle Ranchers,
Farmers and LAND Resources for CONTINUED $$
Business Growth. Subsidy leveraged corporate
seed, chemical treatments and aggressive farming
practices by GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides,
herbicides, antibiotics, watering, grazing, have
exceeded OUR Western Lands and removed
Nature's KEY Caretakers to satisfy Banker Note
Quotas! An Industry of 90+M Head with Food
Wastes NOW 40\%, THIS Tragic "Standoff" with
conserving BLM managers seeking to retain
Natural Species in Prairie Grasses (critical
water/soil conserving 15' roots), cultivating bison,
wolves in herd health, coyotes - prairie dogs ALL
ONCE defining A RICH Sharing America! Our
Oregon Standoff reflects The Greed with My
Condolences to The Families in LOSS of Life! WE
Posted by Bill Littmann on 28 Jan 2016

Thanks for the interesting comments about my
article. Always good to hear varied perspectives
open minds are what lead us to smarter management
plans. And yes, CP, I have many years of experience
on the ground: for 7 years, I worked in eastern
Oregon outside, not in an office. I spent 3 field
seasons at Malheur and Hart Mountain and many
more years working in the Blue Mountains. I've also
worked in the field in eastern Washington, Zimbabwe,
Mexico, Costa Rica, and here on Lake Superior's
shores. Being married to a farmer, and being the
daughter of a farmer, also inform my perspectives.
You're free to disagree with my conclusions, of
course, but my data and my analysis come from
many years of work on the land. You might find my
book about Malheur useful: Where Land and Water
Meet. And my book about the Blue Mountains might
also offer you some interesting information: Forest
Dreams. Cheers.
Posted by Nancy Langston on 28 Jan 2016

Gary Rogers, you're right that juniper does not
invade cheatgrass, which is why I didn't make that
claim in the essay. Increases of juniper in the
northern Great Basin do reduce sagebrush-steppe
habitat. And cheatgrass is a serious threat to
grasslands in the northern Great Basin. We differ on
our interpretations of the sustainability of grazing.
Posted by Nancy Langston on 28 Jan 2016

C.P., read Nancy Langston's book Where Land And
Water Meet. Her knowledge of the Malheur is deep
and grounded.
Posted by Ted Wolf on 29 Jan 2016

How much do you think the cooperative projects on
Malheur have been set back by the occupation, given
the outspoken support by some locals?
Posted by Emily Sieger on 29 Jan 2016

Amazing how sensitive this is, how most opinions
are so slanted – a “go for the throat mentality”
has gone viral. Let’s also keep in mind the
endless taxpayer financed subsidies thrown at ag
and cattle industries – from before the beginning
of ranching – in places where such activities are
ecologically inappropriate. Add to it other
extractive industries that are inherently
inefficient, and generally irresponsible for their
externalities, and completely subsidized by public
largess and it’s little wonder some, even basic
regulation, is necessary. Even with generous
subsidies, the entire enterprise is marginal at
best. The guys at Malheur are suggesting we
move in the opposite direction of history and
accelerate the machine.

It’s hopeful that we’re likely seeing the last,
desperate gasps of a failure, and one that looks
radically illegitimate in so many ways. Do they
really think that an armed takeover is going to
accomplish anything? Dangerously delusional
that any thinking person would see the armed
mob approach as legitimate. Who are the real

But the crew at Malheur might just be stooges for
a clumsy corporate-backed effort to transfer
public lands into private hands. This effort is
underway across the West, and fortunately
faltering as the real public gets wise. Still,
corporate PR would certainly utilize a more
articulate and enlightened approach, something
with a legitimate legal and historical foundation,
instead of relying on a group of what has turned
out to be mixed nuts. Despite the closing act of a
dead-end culture, this could get nastier. Terribly
tragic that blood was shed at Malheur, but even
more so that the group would have chosen this
battle and used such a misguided message and

Posted by Kyle G on 29 Jan 2016

CP, as my kids would say, "you just got told".
Posted by JS on 29 Jan 2016

Nancy, unfortunately I read your biography AFTER I posted my initial comment. I am still kicking myself for that. I was wrong, and I apologize for impugning your credentials. I also appreciate your reasonable rebuttal.

That said, I do disagree with you. I think you've described an ideal. It's one that I share. But I think you've overlooked the reality of how the federal agencies have actually acted as administrators.

I urge you to read Greg Walden's January 5 speech on the House floor. I'm not a Republican and carry no water for him or in fact for anyone in Washington, D.C., which I think has for many years been hard at work creating more problems than it has been solving.

Mr. Walden may well be wrong about the Klamath situation, which is something I have not delved into. But he was a leader in creating the Steens Mountain Wilderness law, and his account of federal maladministration, arrogance, and outright lawlessness should disturb everyone.

No one should be above questioning, and in this case pointed questioning. The BLM, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have alienated thousands of people in the West.

Too many people want to caricature those who criticize federal land management as selfish despoilers of the land, and worse. The complaints are many, and many of them are well justified -- and ignored by self-styled environmentalists, who wouldn't be caught dead listening to a rancher.

That state of affairs must change.
Posted by C.P. on 29 Jan 2016

C.P, thanks for elaborating your comments. I don't
know where you live, but here in Oregon there are
many "self-styled environmentalists" who have
spent the better part of the last 20 years listening
to, and working with, ranchers and other
landowners and public lands stakeholders to
develop effective collaborative approaches to land
management that support profitable ranching and
other uses. In Malheur, in the Klamath Basin, in
the Wallowas, and more. Rep. Greg Walden has in
the past facilitated some of this work, but lately he
has taken to grandstanding (his Jan 5 floor speech
a recent case in point), and he calmly sold the
long-negotiated Klamath Basin Restoration
Agreement down the river at the end of 2015 -- to
the bitter disappointment of Klamath Basin
ranchers, tribes, business owners, and, yes, self-
styled environmentalists. And to his lasting shame,
and to the detriment of the State of Oregon.

Here's where we agree: That state of affairs must
Posted by Ted Wolf on 29 Jan 2016

We obviously had different reactions to Walden's Jan. 5th speech. It occurs to me that he might've torpedoed the long-negotiated Klamath agreement because the BLM and USFW cannot be trusted to obey the law.

With all due respect, I don't regard all "stake holders" (a bureaucratic term that really bugs me) as equal. I put the people who feed us first, and some Goretax-clad hiker from Portlandia quite a bit farther down the list.

I'd also add that the lawlessness and arrogance that Walden described turned me from a supporter of the Owyhee Canyon wilderness proposal into an opponent. Given the track record at Steens Mountain, I don't trust federal land managers to obey any long-negotiated arrangement.

Not that it'll matter. I fully expect Obama to shove that one down the throats of Eastern Oregon.
Posted by C.P. on 29 Jan 2016

Thanks for your comments. Emily, I'm terrible at
predicting the future, but I certainly hope the
situation doesn't set collaborative efforts back too
much. On Jan 27, the Oregon Watershed
Enhancement Board (OWEB) voted to allocate more
than $1.6 million to support the Harney Basin
Wetlands Initiative--so that should help.

CP, I have watched much of the Jan 6 floor speech by
Walden (not all--I live in a rural community where we
have no high speed internet options--a huge issue for
much of rural America). I sympathize with his
concerns for the economic decline in Harney County.
It used to be the wealthiest county in Oregon, when
timber sales were at their highest. Now it's one of the
poorest--but not because the ranching economy has
suffered, but rather because timber sales have
dropped by over 80\%, shutting down the mills in the
north of the county.

However, I very much disagree with the 'facts' Sen.
Walden cites to support his case against the refuge
and the federal refuge managers. On Steens, it was
ONDA (not the feds) who began to bring lawsuits
against the ranchers--and the BLM--after 5 years (as
they had said they would.) You might find it helpful
to speak with ranchers Fred Otley and Stacey Davies,
both of whom ranch on the Steens and have been
part of those processes for many years. They aren't
happy about recent events, but I don't think they'll
accuse the BLM or the FWS of the things Walden
accuses them of.

Walden also makes a series of very angry accusations
against the refuge concerning its acquisitions of land.
These accusations are simply incorrect, and there are
abundant public records to show he's wrong (I
discuss several of these cases at length in WLWM).
Posted by Nancy Langston on 30 Jan 2016

I made an error in the previous comment: Jan 5th,
not Jan 6th, floor speech. Sorry. NL
Posted by Nancy Langston on 30 Jan 2016

I can see this will wind up exactly the way I predicted. You and the federal agencies will go back to business as usual, and just blow everyone off. And then you'll wonder why so many people out there, to be mild about it, resent the living hell out of the arrogance and lawlessness repeatedly shown by officials and their "environmentalist" allies.
Posted by C.P. on 30 Jan 2016

thank you , this is one of the best articles I have read
on the topic. I am a lifelong westerner , former East
and Central Oregonian who now lives and works in
rural Southwest borderlands .I think you are
objective and perceptive in your presentation of the
problem and the history of the attempts to find a
solution. The arid west demands flexibility,
adaptability and an eye for restoring and maintaining
the resource as well as the overall health of the
ecosystems. we work in service to that and we have
a chance. we don't, we lose and everything else goes
down with us.
Posted by S.S. on 19 Feb 2016


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nancy langstonABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Langston is Professor of Environmental History, Department of Social Sciences and Great Lakes Research Center, Michigan Technological University. She is author of a history of Malheur Refuge titled Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed.



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