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What Malheur Means to Harney County

Steen Mountain as seen from the Buena Vista Overlook at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Ore. | Marilyn Kircus
Steen Mountain as seen from the Buena Vista Overlook at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Ore. | Marilyn Kircus

As a young boy, I grew up with the chance to work in a family business. At the core of this business was the land. I wanted to learn as much about how to be a good steward of the land as I could. So I went off to college. The plan was to come back home and work for the family. Somewhere along the way, I took a 32- year detour working in public land conservation, most of them with the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Refuge System provided me the opportunity to connect the heartbeat of wild things, the magic of soils and clean water, with the pulse of human progress. I couldn’t think of a more noble way to make a living. I met my wife, raised my children, and made lifelong friends across rural America.

As we await a final resolution of the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I am getting mad as hell.

Harney County is home to many good men and women who work hard to make a good life for their families. Burns is a wonderful town, a hub for so many rural ranching families. It’s the place where people go to buy groceries and gas, attend church and basketball games. It’s a place where children attend 4-H or play on the local little league teams. It’s a small town where kids grow up knowing their neighbors, meet their husband or wife, settle down, raise their own kids and give back to the community, whether as a volunteer fire fighter, Rotarian or EMT.

I’m as frustrated as the residents of Harney County are, because I know what a great place it is and all of the important work that gets done out on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I was there this summer. I listened to neighbors and ranchers, county commissioners, hunters and fishers, conservationists, women and men from cities and the country, all tell a common story of working together to solve conservation problems that will make life better for Harney County.

The irony is that the men and women who have illegally occupied the refuge headquarters would have been welcome to share in that story. Instead, they arrived with guns, selfish intentions and a “pretend its legal” philosophy. The choice was theirs. They chose poorly. And by their choice, more than a refuge headquarters was taken over. An American community has been held hostage.

We are still in the cold bone of winter and snow seems plentiful this young year. The Steens should be sharing more water this spring than has been the custom of late. Forbs and bunchgrasses should be plentiful for wild and domestic grazers this summer, and creeks and springs should be running full.

Ron Cole is the western conservation programs manager for National Wildlife Refuge Association, and former refuge manager at Klamath Basin Refuge Complex in southern Oregon.
Ron Cole, western conservation programs manager for National Wildlife Refuge Association, and former refuge manager at Klamath Basin Refuge Complex in southern Oregon.

The annual return of sandhill cranes will soon be upon the Harney Basin. Aldo Leopold wrote that a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent on nobility. Citizens of Harney County will be listening with trained ear for the first sounds of their arrival. Their call is an ancient language that ushers nobility back to the Harney Basin each year.

In the meantime, I suppose we all have to be patient, and remember that the collective effort to conserve a special place in Harney County gives hope to a community that human progress can include the heartbeat of wild things.

Ron Cole is the western conservation programs manager for National Wildlife Refuge Association, and former refuge manager at Klamath Basin Refuge Complex in southern Oregon. He lives in Klamath Falls, Ore. with his wife.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2016/02/what-malheur-means-to-harney-county/

1 comment

  1. Steve Dimock says:

    A well stated expression. Unfortunately, those that are holding the refuge hostage would dismiss it all as coming from a refuge manager. I hope we can get these insurgents out before that water arrives, before the Carp have taken back the gains that have been made, before the Sandhill Cranes arrive, before the people of Harney county are too badly hurt. Perhaps, the anger of which you speak can move some of us to take a stronger stand for the future of refuges across our country and the world.

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