Cooperation and conflict between ranchers and the feds

January 8, 2016
Patches on the sleeve of a militiaman is seen at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 4, 2016. The leaders of a group of self-styled militiamen who took over a U.S. wildlife refuge headquarters over the weekend said on Monday they had acted to protest the federal government's role in governing wild lands. Ammon Bundy, a leader of the group, told reporters outside the occupied facility on Monday that his group had named itself "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom" and was trying to restore individual rights. Bundy and law enforcement officials declined to say how many people were occupying the refuge headquarters. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX2112W

Patches on the sleeve of a militiaman is seen at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Troubled relations between Western ranchers and the federal government do not have to lead to an armed standoff. Yet, rancher Ammon Bundy and his militia, who are occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, are part of the American West’s long tradition of fierce battles between public and private land ownership.

Bundy insists he is responding to a recent federal order that two local ranchers must serve longer prison sentences after being convicted of arson on public lands. The Bundy group has vowed to occupy the wildlife refuge indefinitely, to raise awareness of the “very huge, egregious problem” of federal overreach in public land management.

Fires have long been a serious point of contention between ranchers and federal agencies. Controlled “back burn” fires on private land, the practice of lighting “back fires” to burn off invasive species or destroy underbrush that could serve as kindling for a natural fire sparked by lightning, can too often turn into uncontrolled runaway fires on public land. Adding to the general frustration are old forest-service policies that call for fire suppression instead of management, which many farmers today insist disrupts the natural cycle of forest fires that can organically rejuvenate grasslands.

One reason the Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were originally convicted was because they set a fire at a time when local authorities had banned the practice. The conflagration spread to public lands, which endangered plants and wildlife. In another incident, they set fires to cover up the fact that they had been hunting on public lands; more than 100 acres of federal parkland were destroyed in the process.

A cooperative of Arizona ranchers called the Malpai Borderlands Group, however, has been able to prevent such historic standoffs. The group persuaded the local federal agency that it could develop a viable plan for managing back-burn fires. Malpai members worked with the U.S. Forest Service to create a controlled fire system for both public lands and private-grazing leaseholders.

The group started in the early 1990s when Malpai ranchers experienced the same sorts of tensions with federal land managers — a proposed spike in public grazing fees ignited showdowns between local ranchers and federal agencies. But instead of forming a militia, the ranchers created a public-private cooperative to manage the land.

Fifth-generation Arizona rancher Bill McDonald, a co-founder of the cooperative, ultimately won a MacArthur “genius” award for this work, blazing a new path for the American West.

This is a very different story from the one unfolding in Oregon, though it involves a similar cast and scenario: ranchers and federal agencies fighting over fires and a wildlife refuge.

The Arizona landowners had faced a difficult truth more than 30 years ago: Their ranches, many of which had been homesteaded by their ancestors more than a century earlier, were threatened by real estate developers. Local wetlands were equally endangered, as were certain species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies hoped to protect, including jaguars, ocelots, two species of fish, the Chiricahua Leopard Frog and more than 500 species of bees.

So the ranchers devised a cooperative land-management policy that could preserve rangeland even as it protected native species and wetlands. The Malpai Borderlands Group has worked with the Bureau of Land Management and the Nature Conservancy to preserve habitats for endangered species, another traditional flashpoint across the West.

A few years ago, I toured the border ranches of several Malpai members. One stop included the historic San Bernardino Ranch — yes, now a National Wildlife Refuge — where federal officers cooperated with local ranchers to preserve native habitat and wetlands. The officers’ equipment included walkie-talkies to communicate with landowners, as well as the Border Patrol substation nearby.

This story of rancher-federal cooperation doesn’t spark headlines the way Bundy’s armed occupation does. But it might prove a far more important development in the history of the American West.

5 comments

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This seems an odd commentary/opinion piece for reuters. Of late, they seem to be attempting to become the FOX of on-line new papers. This editorial is out of line with that goal.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Very interesting. Entirely agree that valuable hard work on avoiding conflict doesn’t make for the same news splash as idiots with guns. Always interested to hear about the people who make a lasting difference based on discernment nd determination.

Posted by WilliamdeReuter | Report as abusive

The big difference is the rise of animosity caused by the election of a black president. Hard to believe this would have happened when Geo. W. Bush was president.

Posted by elcantwell | Report as abusive

If ranchers are unhappy living next to federal land, they should move. No one is making them living out in BFE.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The grievance about “management” of the public lands is not the main cause of the conflicts. The Bundys and their ilk are trying to steal public lands. This is evidenced by their refusal to pay even the heavily subsidized grazing fees for many years.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive