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Return to Malheur: A Battle-Scarred Community Where Cowboys and Conservationists Are Working…

Months after the Bundy insurrection rocked Harney County, Oregon, a group of local residents is trying to heal the community and overcome the American West’s long history of land-use conflict. Their secret: Bring cowboys and conservationists together.

By Jimmy Tobias


(Illustration: Chad Hagen)

Editor’s Note: After this story went to press for our November/December 2016 print issue, Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five other protesters were acquitted on charges of federal conspiracy for their actions at Malheur.

Linda Sue Beck, her rosy cheeks matching her red fleece, reclines on a couch in the Hotel Diamond, a weather-beaten edifice in a remote valley in southeastern Oregon. Snow flurries and staunch wind torment the trees outside.

“I’m exhausted,” Beck says, looking both content and emotionally spent on this early April afternoon. And who can blame her?

Beck was a principal target of the gun-toting militants who stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter. She’s been a fisheries biologist with the refuge for seven years, and, for 41 days, Ammon Bundy and his buddies commandeered her office and rifled through her desk. They ridiculed her, calling her “the carp lady” and claiming people like her are “destroying America.” Militiamen, she says, prowled outside her family’s ranch. Like other federal employees here, Beck was forced to flee her home for the upheaval’s duration.

“The ripple effects of the harm that the occupation did to this community are huge,” she says. “But we lived through it and we came out and we are doing good things.”

Like the armadas of migratory birds that pass through this region each spring, Beck is back in Burns, Oregon, after a brutal winter. Unlike her tormentors, who are behind bars in Portland awaiting trial on conspiracy and weapons charges, she’s here to continue her worthy work.

Alongside leading Harney County citizens and collaborators from across the Pacific Northwest, Beck is involved in a years-long experiment to overcome the land-use conflicts that so often plague small communities in the American West. That’s why she’s at Hotel Diamond: for a marathon meeting with those who might not otherwise spend time together — local ranchers and conservationists, county politicians, state officials, and federal land managers. They are all members or allies of a group called the High Desert Partnership, and together they are planning its most ambitious project yet.

With millions in funding from state coffers, this unlikely group is using collaborative tools like facilitated discussion and old-fashioned neighborliness to move past entrenched animosities. It seeks to tackle landscape-scale problems, like the region’s invasive carp infestation and its crumbling irrigation infrastructure. In contrast to those who use weapons to get their way, the Hotel Diamond crowd wants to heal Harney County. And its communitarian methods, developed “with blood, sweat and tears,” as Beck puts it, could help solve simmering tensions elsewhere on this side of the 100th meridian.

The Harney Basin is a massive bathtub, a miles-wide receptacle surrounded by snow-crowned mountains in which all waterways lead to a series of lakes that rise and fall with the weather. Scientists call it an endorheic basin, a closed system, one of many in the vast Basin and Range Province that sprawls across the West.

The rich floodplains of this particular bathtub have always enticed a wide array of residents. The Paiute tribe has occupied the land for millennia. White migrants arrived in the 19th century, founding Burns and other communities. And then there are the birds. Thanks to Malheur Lake and others like it, the basin is a prime stop along the all-important avian migration corridor known as the Pacific Flyway.


A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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Birds have come from their wintering grounds to replenish their resources here for thousands of years, says Chris Colson, a Ducks Unlimited biologist and HDP collaborator. “If they don’t get what they need, if they can’t come here and feed like heck, it doesn’t matter how much good habitat they have on their breeding grounds.”

Colson, thin and tanned, is in town for both the Hotel Diamond meeting and the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, during which hundreds of visitors arrive to watch geese and cranes, ducks and shorebirds, descend from the southern skies. Presently, he and Brenda Smith, the HDP’s executive director, are leading festival-goers on a tour of their Harney Basin wetlands work.

Outside Burns, among vast ranches, the tour bus stops. A tornado of shimmering Ross’s geese circles in the distance as Colson describes the flood-irrigation system that keeps both ranching and bird habitat healthy here. Ditches crisscross the landscape like a circulatory system, he says, carrying water from rivers to fields where ranchers raise winter hay. The system roughly reproduces the spring floods that once inundated the region’s lowlands. And it’s not just crucial for cattle, the mainstay of the county’s robust agricultural economy. Flood irrigation also maintains the seasonal marshes where migratory species feed, and it replenishes groundwater to boot.

The irrigation infrastructure, however, is old and inefficient, and ranchers are increasingly using sprinkler-based systems that draw water from aquifers rather than streams. This transition can diminish bird habitat and deplete groundwater, an ominous problem in the county. If flood irrigation is to maintain its position here, it will need a major makeover.

That’s where the partnership and its wetlands project come in. With a multi-year, $6 million grant from Oregon, the initiative is refurbishing irrigation structures that, in some cases, are more than a half-century old.

“The beautiful thing about the initiative is that we’ve been able to take the load off landowners,” says Ed Sparks, a young biologist and HDP ally. He mentions a Farm Bill-funded project, for instance, that helped a rancher increase the land he had under production while also boosting migratory bird habitat: “The landowner is ecstatic, just happy, happy, happy, with what’s going in the ground.”

Making landowners happy while keeping conservationists content is the partnership’s method of choice for overcoming the not-so-happy history of conflict here.

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt created the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of Harney Basin. At 293 square miles, it is a gem in the refuge system, a water-rich complex of immense ecological importance. And it’s not alone — Harney County is about 75 percent federal land. Local ranchers rely on these public parcels to feed their cattle come summer. Yet the lands are subject to the desires of the American people as a whole, not any single economic interest, and this reality breeds disagreement.

When Chad Karges, Malheur’s current manager, arrived in Harney in the late 1990s, the relationship between federal officials and ranchers was rotten. Malheur is one of many refuges in the country that allow cattle grazing on its premises, and spats about water rights, fencing issues, and permits were regular affairs.

“Back then, the relationship with the community was strained,” Karges says. “Everything you did, there was a lot of tension over it.” He and his team decided there was a better way to do business.

Through house calls, conversations, and the unglamorous work of building relationships, Karges made allies in the community. One of the first was Gary Marshall, a rancher who runs cattle on the refuge.

Tenmiles down a lonely road, through sagebrush-studded hills, stands Marshall’s ranch, a 5,000-acre affair that has been in his family for generations. Marshall, tall and weathered, sits in his kitchen and tells the partnership’s origin story.

“A lot of it happened right here at this table,” he says. First, he and Karges studied collaborative projects around the West, traveling as far as Montana to gather ideas. Then the pair toured the county and state in the 2000s to recruit local leaders, conservationists, and government officials to their cause. Their first true victory saw the adoption of a new refuge conservation plan without the usual legal squabbling. They officially launched in 2005 and began identifying other projects locals could rally around. Many, including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, say the partnership is a model for other conflict-ridden communities. Marshall agrees, but collaboration, he warns, doesn’t come easy.

This work, he says, “has been done over a long period of time and it’s been done with a lot of effort and it has built this trust and these relationships.”

Those relationships proved crucial during the Bundy debacle. Consider this sweet scene, one that upends the prevailing cowboy versus conservationist trope: After the standoff, Marshall says, he and other ranchers threw a barbecue for the rattled refuge employees returning from exile. It was a private affair, no media allowed. But for the maligned officials, including Linda Sue Beck, the dinner was a fortifying display of solidarity.

“It was wonderful,” Beck says, her voice trembling. “Because we had that support, and I knew we had it, it made it better.” The welcoming embrace encouraged her to get back to work.

In the early 20th century, someone made the epic mistake of introducing carp into Harney Basin. Since then the fecund bottom-feeding fish have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem, destroying aquatic vegetation, slurping down calorie-rich insects, and muddying once-pristine lakes. The disruption has devastated bird populations. Malheur Lake, for instance, once produced as many as 100,000 ducklings each year, according to former refuge biologist Gary Ivey. Now, it barely produces a tenth of that number.

Besides irrigation infrastructure, carp eradication is the priority for the HDP’s wetlands initiative. For decades, the Malheur refuge has trapped, electroshocked, and even poisoned the intruders. But it hasn’t been enough. Now the partners want to re-double the carp campaign, and Beck is leading the charge. In one of its first and ongoing projects, the wetlands initiative contracted commercial fisherman to harvest as many carp as possible from the region. With that $6 million grant, the initiative will also hire scientists to study carp behavior and develop a strategy to destroy the fish.

The occupation, of course, set the effort back. Toward the end of the HDP’s birding tour, the bus rumbles down a road near the still-closed refuge headquarters. Next to a slow-moving stream sits a towering metal structure: a trap to capture carp before they escape into the broader watershed. But, as a result of the Bundys’ arrival, it has been left unused this year.

“Look over there!” hollers one of the birders. The group turns to the stream. Bobbing in the dark water are two log-like shapes — carp that have evaded the disabled trap.

After the tour ends, hundreds of people arrive at the county fairground for the bird festival’s final dinner. There’s a steak buffet and a four-part harmony performance; there’s a raffle, laughter, and lots of beer. Brooke Nyman takes the stage. She introduces herself as a proud “ranch wife,” equally comfortable branding calves and raising babies. The militants, she says, never should have come here.

“What I want you to know is that 90 percent of the tried and true ranchers in this community … were not for that [occupation],” she declares to loud applause. “We do not need anyone from Bunkerville, Nevada, or Emmett, Idaho, or Kanab, Utah, to tell us what to do.”

Harney County has its own plans.