"Too many people often don’t
understand the culture and the lifestyle of the great American
Walden: Can't condone actions of armed protesters
By REP. GREG WALDEN U.S. Representative 2nd District
Herald and News by Rep Greg Walden, U.S. Representative 2nd
Editor’s note: Greg Walden represents Eastern Oregon in
Congress, a position he had held since 1999.
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.
Time to end standoff
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
Working to resolve disputes
In my years representing the people of Oregon’s Second 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 Second 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
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
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
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 it 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
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
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
The Hammonds were tried and convicted under a law written after
the Oklahoma City bombing. The presiding judge in the case made
clear that it’s 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.
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