Call it a protest of the protest.
Environmental groups and public land advocates will hold a series of loosely coordinated rallies across the state on Tuesday in support of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which has been occupied by militia members protesting the federal government since Jan. 2.
What started as an outcry over the sentencing of two Harney County ranchers convicted of starting fires on public lands has morphed into a broader conversation about the government’s role in land management across the West. Militants say they want the feds to turn over the wildlife refuge near Burns to local control so it can be opened up to more ranching.
Arran Robertson, spokesman for Oregon Wild, defended public lands as a safe haven for wildlife habitat, clean waters and recreation. One thing lost in the narrative, he said, is how local stakeholders have collaborated on management solutions that balance competing interests.
Tuesday’s rallies are meant to shine a light on collaboration, while steering the conversation away from radical viewpoints that Robertson said have dominated the headlines. The Hells Canyon Preservation Council will host a pro-public lands potluck at their offices in La Grande.
“There’s a lot of positive things that come out of our national public lands,” Robertson said. “There’s actually a lot of coming together and trying to work out differences in the same room.”
Robertson pointed to Oregon Wild’s participation in the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, focusing on the Malheur National Forest in Grant and Harney counties. In particular, he said they joined with industry leaders to save the Malheur Lumber Co. mill in John Day after it closed in 2012.
“I think (the occupation has) set us back,” he said. “It’s driving a wedge between people trying to come together.”
Mark Webb, executive director of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, said it wasn’t easy getting to this point. He remembers after the group first came together in 2006, they had trouble even agreeing on small-scale projects. It took them three years to agree on a 7,000-acre treatment, he said.
Now, because of the group’s working relationship, the Malheur National Forest has received an additional $2.5 million annually to accelerate the pace of restoration. Webb said the group is collaborating on projects up to 40,000 acres every year.
“We’re getting a lot more acres treated a lot quicker,” he said. “It just would not happen without this collaborative effort.”
Certainly members don’t agree on everything, Webb said. But their success is due in part to people’s willingness to have a mature conversation.
“It’s not that we don’t have our own interests, but this group is effective because it’s gotten past the ‘my way or the highway’ attitude,” Webb said.
Speaking for himself, Webb described the occupation as a “holdover from an age that simply won’t work nowadays.” Officially, Blue Mountains Forest Partners has no stance on the protest.
Darilyn Parry Brown, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, said public lands are a treasure trove of values, and should be kept in public hands.
The potluck will begin at noon on Tuesday. Other rallies will be held in Portland, Bend, Eugene, Medford, Hood River and Corvallis.
“There’s been quite a bit of negativity based on what’s been going on in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Brown said. “This is our opportunity to let local folks know there’s a place to come and have positive conversations.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.