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A federal trial is underway in Portland, Ore., of people charged in connection with the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. Ammon and Ryan Bundy—sons of anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy—are among those charged with conspiracy and firearms violations for the takeover of the remote federal refuge near Burns, in Harney County, in early 2016.
The Bundys and other anti-government activists subscribe to a fundamentalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that holds that the federal government cannot legally own or control most of the land in Western states. They seek a complete turnover of those federal lands to local government and private landowners.
The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge exposed deep conflicts and contradictions in a region that prizes self-reliance and the private sector, even as many residents rely on government for their jobs and livelihoods.
Percentage of government (federal, state and local) employment per county and metropolitan area in Oregon, December 2015.
Former Burns fire chief Chris Briels bridles at the gradual expansion of federal influence over the region’s land and economy in the past several decades. He grew up on farms and ranches in Colorado and has lived in the Harney County area for more than 30 years.
“How can somebody who’s managing my public lands tell me I can’t set foot on them?” asked Briels. “How can they close a road I’ve been using for years, and dictate to the ranchers how they’re going to make their living?”
Briels helped organized a local support group — called the Committee of Safety — to defend the Bundys and their followers during the refuge occupation. He agrees with the Bundys that the federal government has no right to own most of the land here, though he readily acknowledges that a lot of his neighbors make their living working for government agencies — for instance, overseeing grazing rights and conservation programs, or fighting wildfires.
“When I moved here in 1978, there weren’t many forest service people or BLM people here,” he said. “But when the environmentalists and everybody shut the logging down, and people quit using our natural resources, there were more and more who went to work for BLM and the forest service. The people had to have jobs.”
But Briels said he’d readily sacrifice the government jobs and offices in the region—to wrest control of the land from the federal government. He said that would allow local residents “to take the resources that are within the county, and manage them by people that live here in the county, to where all of the money stayed here, it didn’t all go to Washington, D.C., to make a sustained income for our people.”
The economic impact of this would indeed be profound.
According to the Oregon Employment Department, right now, 49 percent of Harney County jobs are in the public sector—in federal, state and local government. Only rural Wheeler County has a higher percentage. In contrast, the urban Portland metro area has 13.7 percent government employment. Eugene—home to the University of Oregon—has 19.7 percent.
“In general, we see a correlation where the higher the percentage of public land, the higher the employment base would be in public employment,” said regional economist Damon Runberg, who is based in Bend, about 120 miles west of Burns. There is a comparable concentration of public-sector jobs in rural counties in neighboring Idaho and Washington, according to data provided by those states’ employment departments.
“You see a lot of families split,” said Runberg of rural Oregonians. “One person in the household will be working in agriculture, while someone else has a more traditional payroll job in one of the cities, or is employed in a government agency—whether that’s the school district, or a federal or state agency.”
In the small farming town of Goldendale, Washington, fourth-generation rancher Neal Slater and many of his neighbors straddle this public-private economic divide. Goldendale is in Klickitat County, where approximately one in four jobs is in the public sector. Slater took a break from teaching horsemanship and rope-skills at a summer rodeo Bible camp for teenagers at the Goldendale fairgrounds to explain his views.
Rancher Neal Slater teaches rope skills to teens at Rodeo Bible Camp in Goldendale, Washington.
“We’ve got people putting rules and regulations in place that have nothing to do–no attachment–with the land,” said Slater. “Anybody who’s going to regulate, they should have been in the business for a certain amount of time themselves, so they understand it.”
Slater identifies himself as a conservative Republican, and he shares the constitutional position of Chris Briels and the Bundys–that the federal government shouldn’t own or control most land in the West.
But he also appreciates the help he gets for his own ranch from local staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“In our government office there are really good people,” said Slater. “We have several farmers’ wives that work there to keep their farms going, and they’re great to work with. With programs that are government-funded, some of them I wonder about, but some are really good. We’ve drilled three wells with (NRCS) assistance, that we have solar panels on. We’ve got water where we didn’t have water. That sort of funding really does help—to do some things you’d like to do, that you can’t afford to do.”
Isabelle Fleuraud is among the residents of Harney County who are dependent on a federal government paycheck. Her husband is an eco-physiologist with USDA who conducts his research at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Fleuraud, who immigrated from France to attend college in Wyoming, teaches yoga and ballet at a dance studio in Burns.
Federal jobs like her husband’s pay better-than-average wages for the area, and typically come with health and retirement benefits that many who work in agriculture and ranching lack. “Antagonism against the federal government is palpable in this region,” said Fleuraud, “and it was this way long before the Bundys showed up. Although it is a ranching community, it is a fact that the public sector drives the economy here. But there is this odd denial of that fact.”
Scott Cooper is the former county judge in Prineville (Crook County), Oregon, and now runs NeighborImpact, the biggest social service agency in Central Oregon. Two-thirds of his agency’s funding comes from state and federal government.
Cooper believes the antagonism that Isabelle Fleuaraud has observed locally “is the logical consequence of poverty that was created after the loss of the federal land base for a lot of industry. People are poor and they’re hurting and they’re angry—and they’re looking for someone to blame it on,” said Cooper.
Most rural counties in the West aren’t expected to undergo robust job growth in coming years, and that means government jobs will continue to be a major economic engine.
“There is a lot of federal employment out there,” said Cooper, “and it pays well.”