It took the seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government activists to get national media attention to this ailing corner of Oregon. But the economic story of ailing small towns in the Northwest has nothing to do with Ammon Bundy’s ideology.

Share story

For native Westerners, coverage by the elite East Coast media of the so-called occupation at an Oregon wildlife refuge has produced a bounty of embarrassments and outrages.

For example, many news organizations continued to write — and not in quotations — that the anti-government activists wanted the land owned by the federal government to be returned to the ranchers and local governments.

In reality, the vast majority of public lands in the West never belonged to either.

It was the fruits of American conquest of hundreds of native tribes.

The Bundy gang’s takeover also seemed custom-made for a larger story about how the economically ailing region around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge tells a larger story. As in “Areas that were once economically important languish … creating a feeling of powerlessness.”

Which Kirk Johnson of The New York Times proceeded to do in Burns, Ore. To his credit, he captured some of the nuances and contradictions, including the dependency of the Burns area on government funding.

But Ammon Bundy, with his federally aided business in Phoenix, one of the nation’s largest cities, did not come to save the rural West. All hat and no cattle.

Indeed, as my colleague Hal Bernton wrote last month, despite plenty of peaceful disagreements between ranchers and federal land managers over the years, they reached a landmark agreement balancing grazing and conservation.

“To me, what is important is that the refuge has really listened and taken a more collaborative approach,” cattleman Fred Otley said. “Automatically, that helps build better relations with the community.”

And the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 by conservationist-in-chief Theodore Roosevelt, is a point of pride on the town’s website, beckoning visitors.

Yet Burns, which I visited a few years ago, is very small, about 2,800 in the 2010 Census. Surrounding Harney County’s population was estimated at 7,126 in 2014 and falling.

Harney has 10 percent fewer jobs than in the 1970s, while Oregon as a whole has 75 percent more. Poverty rates are high and incomes are weak.

The biggest culprit cited is the closing of mills, with old-growth trees cut down, restrictions on some logging of federal lands and cheaper Canadian imports. Seven mills closed in Harney County. The only one remaining in eastern Oregon is in John Day.

The Edward Hines Lumber Co. dominated Harney County for decades, after it purchased more than 67,000 acres of timber in the Malheur National Forest in 1928. The Forest Service says it was “possibly the largest volume of timber ever sold in the continental United States.”

But extraction-based economies play out. Ghost towns dot the West as reminders. On top of that, Burns is unusually isolated. Markets are more difficult to reach.

Still, this is not the archetype tale of declining rural America. For one thing, people have been moving off the land and even from small towns into metropolitan areas for nearly a century. Also, eastern Oregon is a lot of real estate.

State Rep. Cliff Bentz, a Republican, has a district that encompasses five counties, 65,000 people and, at 19 million acres, is larger than West Virginia.

“Parts of the district are doing fine,” he told me. “These are especially ones connected with ranching, although the market for beef ebbs and flows.”

Bentz is a lawyer in Ontario, near the Idaho border. But his family roots in the cattle business go back a century, when his grandfather bought a ranch. His brothers are ranchers now.

He speaks with a sad humor about how it took “a bunch of armed outsiders” to get national attention to this corner of the Northwest, and attention that misses the point. The vast majority of ranchers work hard to make a living while operating within complex and changing rules regarding grazing on public lands, he said.

“I’m not saying the regulations are bad. But we’ve never gotten this attention to the hard work people have put in making them work. There has always been a better way to take care of that land. This should be an opportunity to bring in the local people and listen to them instead of this unfortunate Bundy situation.”

Bundy’s ideology doesn’t account for this or the interest ranchers have in improving the land and being good stewards.

It also fails to account for the favorable terms that miners and ranchers have received from the federal government going back to the 19th century, including the use of public lands.

“This is the people’s property,” Bentz said. “It doesn’t belong to the federal government or the ranchers or the environmentalists. It’s all of ours.”

If a larger economic lesson is to be had, it’s this: The world is not flat.

Yes, in theory everything from software engineering to manufacturing can be done anywhere, as Thomas Friedman argues in his famous book.

In reality, these assets cluster in metropolitan areas, especially those with strong economic bones, a smart workforce and global connections. Few small places built on extraction make the leap into the knowledge economy.

Rural areas and small towns in the Northwest prosper from large-scale agriculture, tourism or attracting retirees. A few very fortunate ones have universities or colleges. Or they slowly wither.

It’s a harsh calculus, and places such as Burns are on the losing side.