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Oregon Ranchers Historically Divided Over Management Of Public Lands


An armed group has occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Southeast organ for six days now. The militants take issue with U.S. government's management of public lands. Local ranchers have long worked and sometimes struggled with the Bureau of Land Management. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher has more from Hearney County, Ore.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Surrounded by her five children, rancher Debbie Johnson walks through the occupied Malheur Refuge. She's talking with the militants who want an end to federal management of public lands.

DEBBIE JOHNSON: I brought my kids down because I didn't believe that it was something that needed to be feared in our community. And so fair, I've been very impressed with how well-spoken these guys are, shaking our hands and answering all of our questions.

PEACHER: Johnson and her husband live in Hearney Country. She says people in cities may not understand what it's like to be a cowboy.

JOHNSON: It is the dirtiest, nastiest job you've ever done in your life. Come snow or sleet or hail or rain, it doesn't matter. They're out there feeding the cows, pampering them

PEACHER: Johnson is undecided if the militants' approach is a good thing, but she appreciates that they're shining light on some ranchers' frustrations. Ranchers who graze cows on public lands have to meet BLM rules designed to protect things like water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

JOHNSON: Every year, it seems like it's a little bit harder, another regulation, another rule. The red tape is unbelievable.

PEACHER: The BLM regulates the number of cows allowed in an area, how much they can graze, how many cows can be clustered around a stream.

JOHNSON: We definitely feel like it's only a matter of time before they shut our lands down and shut us out of it.

PEACHER: Those frustrations are shared by Republican Congressman Greg Walden, whose Oregon district includes the occupied refugee. On the House floor this week, Walden said he doesn't condone the occupation, but he understands the militants' frustration.


GREG WALDEN: This is a government that has gone too far for too long.

PEACHER: Walden spoke about what he sees as the arrogance of bureaucrats in interpreting laws.


WALDEN: Do you understand how frustrated I am at this? Can you imagine how the people on the ground feel?

PEACHER: But not all in Hearney County have an antagonistic view of the BLM. Tom Sharp shows me around his ranch, a remote snow-covered expanse of sagebrush and Juniper. About a dozen pregnant cows lumber toward a stack of hay. His horse Buck watches us curiously.

TOM SHARP: The best way to get around on your property and check things is on horseback.

PEACHER: Sharp doesn't agree with the occupiers of the refuge, and he's generally in favor of how the BLM manages lands. But he says that policies that come out of Washington, D.C., don't always work.

SHARP: There will always, I think, be a certain amount of tension between the real communities and the rancher and any federal agency like that. I think what's important is how you resolve those difference when they occur.

PEACHER: Sharp says, take, for example, a threatened bird. One of those collaborations with the BLM involved protecting the greater sage-grouse. He and other ranchers wanted to prove that they could conserve the grouse without an Endangered Species Act listing.

SHARP: And it wanted to protect and do things right in conservation actions to protect the species so that restrictions wouldn't be applied to my operation.

PEACHER: He thinks that collaborative plan crafted by ranchers, the local BLM and conservationists works well, and he thinks federal agencies usually do a good job.

SHARP: It would be difficult for the state or for the county just to simply take back from the federal government all of this landmass area that we have and manage it as well as the BLM.

PEACHER: But Sharp says if anything good can come of the refuge occupation, he hopes that it's that more people understand the nuances and challenges in the rural West. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in Hearney County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.