Federal and state officials effectively altered the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Tuesday, arresting eight protesters and killing a ninth in a shootout.
The protesters had demanded that two Harney County ranchers serving five-year sentences for burning federal land be released, and that federal public lands be turned over to the state, the county and to private ownership. It was a futile endeavor from the start that lacked any legal basis.
For better or worse, the occupation did draw some national attention to legitimate issues concerning the U.S. government’s management of its vast holding of public lands.
It will be all too easy for many casual observers East of the Rockies, and even a good many in the liberal urban centers of the West, to dismiss all of this as the machinations of a half-cocked collection of religious zealots, disenfranchised Reubens and anti-government nuts with too many guns and a crazy interpretation of the Constitution.
Unfortunately, that would miss the real underlying issues.
The standoff is diminished, but the anger and frustration of many farmers, ranchers and lumbermen in Harney County and throughout the West remains unchanged. Their interests must now be pressed in the court of public opinion, and non-Westerners made to understand the real issues.
The federal government holds more than half the land in the West. The economic and civic fabric of rural communities depends on trees cut from the forest, livestock grazed on the range and minerals gleaned from the mining claims.
The government once encouraged these activities in the service of the country’s growing population and in fulfillment of its manifest destiny. Now, policies have changed and that same government seems to be draining the lifeblood of the rural West.
Many in the rural West don’t think their government listens to them and that their concerns are given short shrift. They believe that their livelihoods, their very way of life, are in the hands of bureaucrats controlled by interests outside their communities.
They don’t understand how the government can claim to be a good steward while it lets its forests fill with fuel that feeds ever more terrible wildfires that destroy the very habitat it seeks to protect. They bristle at what they perceive to be the mismanagement of these fires that causes their own property to be damaged or destroyed.
They are stymied at every turn by the inertia that attends every decision, every necessary action on a grazing allotment or timber harvest. They are tired of the endless environmental litigation that seems bent on driving even the most conservation-minded producers off public lands.
They watch as their government adds to its empire, using taxpayer money to outbid local buyers and take more land off the tax roles, and erode private economic opportunities.
They want to be good stewards, to do the right thing. But they want a fair shake.
Now is the time to tell these stories, to tell America that rural western lives matter.