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Standoff exposes urban, rural divide

Portland is far removed, geographically and socially, from the barren economic reality that underlies the Malheur Wiildlife Refuge takeover.
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on January 21, 2016 9:55AM

Eric Mortenson/Capital PressStreetcars, MAX trains, bicyclists and cars crowd Portland's South Waterfront district. The contrast with rural Oregon's wide-open spaces make it difficult to explain the context of the militia occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Eric Mortenson/Capital PressStreetcars, MAX trains, bicyclists and cars crowd Portland's South Waterfront district. The contrast with rural Oregon's wide-open spaces make it difficult to explain the context of the militia occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

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Eric Mortenson/Capital PressWith attention focused on the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon cattle rancher Keith Nantz wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post to explain ranching, grazing and the struggle to make a living in the rural West.

Eric Mortenson/Capital PressWith attention focused on the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon cattle rancher Keith Nantz wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post to explain ranching, grazing and the struggle to make a living in the rural West.

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AP Photo/Rick BowmerA truck travels down a street Jan. 4 in Burns, the county seat of Harney County, Ore.

AP Photo/Rick BowmerA truck travels down a street Jan. 4 in Burns, the county seat of Harney County, Ore.

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PORTLAND — In the South Waterfront district, where new high-rises mark the convergence of Oregon Health and Science University’s expanding presence and the $1.5 billion Tilikum Crossing bridge and new MAX train Orange Line, the only juniper in sight is a mobile food cart at the base of the aerial tram that whisks riders to the top of “Pill Hill,” as OHSU’s main location is known.

The food cart Juniper — “100% gluten free,” a sign promises — does a brisk business among the doctors, nurses, medical students, visitors and patients who converge here. With a name like Juniper, is there any connection to Eastern Oregon, where juniper trees rob the range and hillsides of scarce water, crowd out native grasses and bedevil ranchers?

The cart operator, a cheerful young woman with a nose ring, says no. The owners once had a drink flavored with juniper berries, and enjoyed it so much they chose that for the business name.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that illustrates the casual disconnect between urban and rural. It’s a division on display as armed men occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Harney County and demand the federal government release area ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond and turn over all federally managed land to the states, counties or private ranchers.

Many people living in Portland and other urban centers mock the occupiers as “Y’all Qaeda” and ridicule their beliefs. They rail about “welfare cowboys” receiving “subsidized” grazing fees on federal land.

Meanwhile, rural residents, farming and ranching groups and elected officials have criticized the occupiers’ actions. But they say the underlying anger about lost economic opportunity in the rural West is very real.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Eastern Oregon in Congress, said the thread tying the Hammond family’s case with the occupiers’ demands is “decades of frustration, arrogance and betrayal that has contributed to the mistrust of the federal government.”

In Portland and other urban centers, that connection isn’t so clear.

“Because it’s not on their radar,” said John Morgan, an economic development, civic and leadership planner and consultant who works with rural communities.

Harney County, where federal and state agencies manage about 75 percent of the land, has 1,200 fewer people and 10 percent fewer jobs than it did in the late 1970s. The number of logging and mill jobs in the county went from 768 in 1978 to just 6 in 2014, according to state figures.

Meanwhile, the state’s urban areas, especially Portland and surrounding Multnomah County, have grown dramatically. With its 14,000 employees, OHSU alone has nearly twice as many people as Harney County. Intel, the computer chip manufacturing company based in Hillsboro, employs about 18,000 people.

Yet the wheat, timber, wine, livestock and other agricultural products pouring out of rural Oregon are crucial to cities, Morgan said. City shipping, trucking, processing, professional service and retail jobs depend on them.

“The resource economy is intrinsically tied to the prosperity of the rest of the state,” he said. “You couldn’t have urban prosperity without the fact that Oregon is still a resource economy. Intel can only take us so far.”

Getting that point across to city dwellers isn’t easy.

“They’re more than happy to try and regulate what happens to the Columbia River Gorge because they see it as their playground, without stopping to understand the (economic) impact,” Morgan said.

But the Hammond case — they were ordered to serve additional prison time for burning BLM land — and the wildlife refuge occupation may have opened the conversation. Walden made an impassioned speech in Congress about “federal overreach in the West” that was well-received and widely shared on social media.

Rancher Keith Nantz, manager and partner of the Dillon Land and Cattle Co. south of The Dalles, Ore., wrote an opinion piece on the issue for the Washington Post that received more than 4,200 reader comments.

In his piece, Nantz said management decisions are being made by people “four to five generations removed from food production” and who “don’t quite understand our industry.”

“In every part of my business, I try to find a balance between economics, mother nature and our culture,” Nantz wrote. “I know that if we don’t treat our land properly, we will go out of business by our own hands.

“But all too often, I’m not given the autonomy to do so. I’m given rules, not a conversation about how ranchers and government officials and environmentalists might be able to work together. That’s an approach that fails everyone.”

Nantz said online comments ranged from “absolute opposite ends of the spectrum.” The issue now has the national stage, he said, and producers should not let the conversation die off. Farmers and ranchers are getting better at networking, he said, and must continue to engage the public and explain what they do without being combative.

“We need to utilize the momentum we have right now,” Nantz said. “We need to capitalize on this movement.”

Nantz said one of the tips in the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to “first understand before being understood.”

“We all have to live here in this great state and this great country,” he said. “We need some balance. Try to listen instead of forming a rebuttal. We can actually find answers to conflicting views.”

Portland attorney Tim Bernasek, who heads an agricultural practice group for the Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue law firm, said he’s seeing increased urban curiosity about rural life.

He said city dwellers should understand farmers and ranchers are intelligent people who are drawn to agriculture because it’s a calling, often a family legacy and a lifestyle preference.

He said their career choice is analogous to that of teachers, who are likewise drawn to their jobs.

“They could make more money doing something else,” he said.

Paul Schwennesen, a Harvard-educated Air Force veteran who raises grass-fed beef in Arizona, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which he described Western reaction to the Harney County situation as “deeply American.”

He said “urban elites” at both ends of the political spectrum have dismissed the standoff as ridiculous, and miss the point of it.

“Like good Tories haughtily renouncing tea dumping in Boston ‘Harbour,’ we may be shocked to find that the ragamuffins are not only saying something important, but that their message is striking a chord, Schwennesen wrote.

“What they are saying is that the federal government is too bloated, too heavy-handed, and too corrupt, and that it is most spectacularly evident on the rugged rangelands of the West.”

In a phone interview, Schwennesen said reaction to his piece “split along the urban-rural divide.”

He said the ground level issue is federal management of the overwhelming majority of the resource base in the West. Bureaucratic paralysis is the inevitable result when “one decision maker gets to make the decisions over a gigantic public resource,” he said.

“I think a lot of what’s going on here is that the free market and capitalism really aren’t thriving out West,” Schwennesen said.

“While not all rural blight is the result of federal oversight, it’s a big piece of the puzzle that goes unquestioned today,” he said.

If Cargill or Monsanto owned the majority of the land and people were denied opportunity to make a living, all hell would break loose, he said.

“I am an optimist at the end of the day,” Schwennesen said. “I do think logic prevails. The best I can hope to do is put out facts, and put them out in such a way that it’s not just ideological posturing.

“There’s more to the issue than meets the preconceived eye.”

Online

To see Rep. Greg Walden’s speech on the U.S. House floor, go to www.capitalpress.com.

To read rancher Keith Nantz’s opinion piece, go to https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/08/im-an-oregon-rancher-heres-what-you-dont-understand-about-the-bundy-standoff/

To read rancher Paul Schwennesen’s opinion piece, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-schwennesen/the-stetson-rebellion-and_b_8949070.html







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