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09 January 2016

Armed Oregon occupation: It's about White poverty in the West

Ammon Bundy says that federal land management practices are pushing more people into poverty, highlighting a serious rural economic problem. 

ATLANTA — If you thought the armed occupation of a federal bird refuge in Oregon was simply a battle over land rights, think again.

This week, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the group, complained that Westerners are helpless against a federal foe that is “literally putting [White people] into poverty.”

To be sure, since their take-over of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last weekend, Mr. Bundy and his group have struggled to elicit sympathy and support. But by reframing the issue, Bundy may find a wider audience. And he's right: Poverty in the American West is rising even as it has fallen in the Deep South. 

By raising the plight of poor, mostly White Americans languishing under the thumb of federal land managers provides a poignant insight into recent economic trends as well as a centuries-old fight over land use in the west, one which could, some say, provide these Western range riders common cause with other groups of marginalized Americans.

After all, America’s unresolved debate over federal management of nearly half the land in Western states  – some quarter billion acres, in all, including 87 percent of Nevada – has increasingly come to focus on one stark fact of federal stewardship: As leaders in Washington – including President Obama – have taken a harder line on protecting public lands from loggers, miners, ranchers and others who wish to use it for profit, poverty in the rural West has intensified even as poverty has lifted in the Deep South.

Bundy’s comments are “really the first time [since the Great Depression] where rural people are talking about their fear of poverty and their experience of poverty,” says Catherine McNicol Stock, a Connecticut College historian and author of “Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain.” “White people don’t want to talk about being poor or a small town in Kansas being a White ghetto – nobody’s going to use those terms. What’s remarkable is that these guys are actually saying ‘impoverishment’ and blaming it on government, as opposed to broader structures in society.”

What spurred the current standoff is the sentencing of two members of the Hammond ranching family to five years in prison, even after a state judge deemed such a sentence cruel and “unconscionable.” 

On Thursday, Bundy met with Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who asked Bundy to heed the will of locals and leave. Bundy declined. 

Yet the decision by the protesters in Oregon to attempt to redefine the terms of the land debate to one of civil rights – Mr. Bundy invoked Rosa Parks before saying that “we realize we have to act if we want to have anything left to pass down to our children” – is rooted, at least in part, in economic and demographic trends.

Fifty years ago, half of the poor in America lived in the Deep South, a figure that dropped to 41 percent in 2010. Over the same time frame, the West’s share of the nation’s low-income population climbed from 11 percent to 23 percent – remarkable, given that more counties in the West today have fewer than two people per square mile than in 1890.

Rebellion does seem in order,” writes Joseph Taylor III, for Reuters. “It’s just not Ammon Bundy’s version.” But, he adds, more “Bundy-like spectacles” are likely, given that “they have been occurring for two centuries, and nothing to date has resolved the underlying grievances, many of which are real, legitimate, and fundamental to any lasting resolution.”

As Ammon Bundy pointed out, Harney County, the site of the protest, has gone from Oregon’s wealthiest to its poorest since federal land management tightened in the 1970s. Its timber industry has been decimated under federal land use management.

“When 60, 70 or 80 percent of a county is federally controlled, and the federal policies prevent active management and use of those lands, the result is you have depressed economies, impoverished people, and a lack of hope,” says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, who represents Harney County.

San Juan County, Utah, sees 40 percent of its children born into families in persistent poverty – meaning that their conditions haven’t changed for more than three decades. Ninety-two percent of the county is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

“This is not about the Bundys, it’s not about the Hammond family, or about Burns, Ore. – they’re not creating the problem,” says Phil Lyman, a San Juan County, Utah, county commissioner who was convicted last year on charges related to a protest ATV ride through Recapture Canyon, closed in 2007 to protect the remains of an archaeological excavation. “The problem is what’s being created by these agencies that have no political accountability and no knowledge about the areas they’re affecting so dramatically. They have 100 percent control and zero responsibility. That’s a recipe for disaster. And that’s what’s happening.”