Malheur Refuge standoff: The ranchers’ story

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BURNS, Ore. (KOIN) — The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge captivated the nation for 41 days and 40 nights. De facto militia leader Ammon Bundy staged the armed occupation under the notion of representing the disenfranchised people of Harney County.

But is it true? Do the people of Burns feel the United States government is ruling with an iron fist?

Gary Marshall, a 7th-generation rancher in Harney County, told KOIN 6 News the militia never spoke for him or for anyone else he can think of that owns property in Burns.

“It was not true. [The militia] were just wrong,” said Marshall, “When they came they didn’t understand the situation here.”

Marshall owns a little over 11,000 acres of land in Harney County. It’s private property. But for about 6 months a year, he needs to graze his cattle on the surrounding federally-owned land. He pays a fee and has a permit. It’s just one example of how private land ownership and federal land management works.

“There has not been a major clash or battle that’s happened,” Marshall said.

In all of Oregon there are more than 63 million total acres of land. The federal government owns or manages more than half. At first glance, it’s easy to assume the feds have all the power and can do whatever it pleases. But that’s simply not the case, said Brenda Smith, the chair of the High Desert Partnership.

Brenda Smith at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, April 29, 2016 (KOIN)

“It’s not just about the land. It’s about our community, it’s about the social fabric of our challenges that we need to meet. It’s also about the economics of what needs to go on,” said Smith.

The High Desert Partnership is a coalition in Harney County of all different people who live and work near (or on) the County’s federal land. It ensures everyone has a seat at the table. In Harney County, 75% of the land is federally owned.

Who is the High Desert Partnership?

“Land management concerns don’t heed boundaries,” says Smith about concerns over federal overreach, “It’s important to have federal managers and private land owners meeting together so that we can impact our community on a broader scale.”

While the relationship between all stakeholders in the County is by no means perfect, the resounding message is: It works. The High Desert Partnership was created nearly two decades ago and gives a voice to the ranchers, environmentalists, private citizens and yes, even the federal government.

Chart showing the makeup of Federal land in Harney County

“People do have a seat at the table,” said Chad Karges, who manages the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. He sits on the High Desert Partnership on behalf of the refuge.

Chad Karges, the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, April 29, 2016 (KOIN)

“People have been participating [in the partnership] prior to the occupation and we were continuing those conversations during the occupation and they’re still ongoing today. I expect them to expand in the future.”

Karges, Smith and other members of the partnership we spoke with truly believe, had the occupiers approached them first — to better understand Harney County’s relationship with the feds — the standoff might have been avoided.

The people of Burns never wanted any of this. They didn’t need it. The only ones that wanted to change the lay of this land wasn’t the federal government, but the very militia vowing to fight it.

           Follow Andrew on Twitter: @DymburtNews

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