Beyond the Oregon Protests: The Search for Common Ground

The standoff with militant extremists at an Oregon wildlife refuge, which erupted into violence and arrests this week, stands in stark contrast to the new sense of collaboration between local residents and public land managers in the West. The militants claimed that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge symbolized federal tyranny over public lands. But for many locals the refuge exemplified just the opposite: a successful community-based, collaborative partnership with the government. Not one local rancher had heeded the armed militants’ call to join their protest and rip up their federal grazing leases.

Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.

The plan, following an approach increasingly being implemented on Western public lands, uses innovative techniques suggested by local community members. Cattle grazing, for example, is encouraged as a method for controlling invasive plants that threaten the refuge — an experiment that will be rigorously monitored by participants. Since ecological conditions change, the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.

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