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Malheur Occupation: How Does Nature Nurture Shape the Adults We Become?

A Guest Post by Dave Irons

I was eleven when I first visited Harney County and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Our family spent most of a long weekend up on Steens Mountain, where I caught and ate trout from Fish Lake and gazed down from the east rim onto the dry white expanse of the Alvord Lake bed roughly a mile below. Steens Mountain is a massive fault block rising to nearly 10,000 feet. It is the defining geological feature of this subregion of Oregon. Having just moved to Portland from Indiana about 18 months earlier, this was my first exposure to Oregon’s high desert. I was enthralled.

Nearly six more years would pass before my first real birding trip to Malheur. As a carload of us drove onto the refuge that first afternoon, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Cinnamon Teal seemed to be in every puddle and roadside ditch. Any fencepost that didn’t have a Willet or a Wilson’s Snipe standing on it was likely to feature a Yellow-headed or Red-winged Blackbird. Calling Willets and Long-billed Curlews displayed overhead, while American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts scolded from roadside nest sites. As dusk settled in over the Malheur Environmental Field Station (now Malheur Field Station), Sage Thrashers sang from every direction. It was baffling to hear Soras and American Bitterns sounding off out in the distance when all the vegetation in sight was big sagebrush, rabbit brush and greasewood. The smell of sage was ever present. At night, it was quieter than anywhere I had ever been and the number of visible stars was at least an order of magnitude greater than I could recall seeing elsewhere. It was a simultaneously sensory overload and sensory underload.

Years compiled into decades and decades accreted into nearly 40 years of pilgrimages to this magical place. I’ve explored the Malheur/Harney Basin with many companions, some dear, lifelong friends and others fleeting acquaintances. To a person they have been captivated by what some of us came to call the “Big Country.” We appropriated this handle from a BBC documentary about Malheur and Steens Mountain that was filmed in the early 1970s.

Sharing Malheur with my oldest daughter Lucy, my late daughter Lilly and their younger brother Stuart ranks among my greatest joys. Their early visits were part trial by ordeal, with me making too many birding stops. Nevertheless, they gradually bonded with this place on their own terms. Now in their 20s, they organize their own Memorial Day Weekend trips, bringing along friends who they’ve introduced to Oregon’s high desert country. Lucy, her best friend Meli, and Lilly began referring to each other as “desert sisters” some years back. Taking a group picture of them in front of the famous Pete French Round Barn became an annual tradition. When Lilly died in August 2014, it was a no-brainer that we would scatter some of her ashes at Malheur during our 2015 Memorial Day Weekend trip. She will be forever with us when we come to visit. Three months later we placed a memorial bench honoring Lilly at the refuge headquarters.

The "Desert Sisters" in front of the Pete French Round Barn, on the far eastern edge of Malheur NWR.

The “Desert Sisters” in front of the Pete French Round Barn, on the far eastern edge of Malheur NWR.

There is a gentle pace to Harney County that is quite unlike that of Oregon’s more densely populated westside. Finding a quiet spot to be alone and reflect on the surrounding beauty is never a challenge. Returning home to the city is a culture shock after even a few days in southeastern Oregon. I would have never expected Malheur to make the national news for all the wrong reasons, but it did on the afternoon of 2 January 2016.

Ironically, I was sitting in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in Newport, Oregon, tallying up birds seen on the Yaquina Bay Christmas Bird Count when I learned that Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan, and a number of others had taken over the headquarters complex at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Having spent most of my life in Oregon, Malheur represents more than just a place we go birding. It is a shrine, a state of mind, a spiritual condition. Special bonds are forged among those who have shared experiences on this stark and arid landscape. It’s a vast, mostly treeless expanse that offers a vivid contradiction to the typical notion of “Oregon.”

I was dumbfounded by the initial news and lingered in a state of denial over the next day or so. Not until I arrived home the next Monday evening did I fully engage the reality of my beloved Malheur being under siege. Gradually I began to unravel the motivations that were driving the actions of the principal players in this unlawful occupation. News clips showed men with guns gathered on grounds I knew well. Their interpretations of The Constitution and inability to understand and appreciate how society as a whole benefits from public lands were mystifying. Who raised these people and filled their heads with this nonsense?

Denial quickly spiraled into anger that was at times quite intense. Emotions were raw and unbridled. Like many folks I know, that anger spawned fantasies of invasions to rid these squatters from our hallowed birding grounds. There were hours and sometimes days when it mattered not whether the occupiers came out in handcuffs or body bags, I just wanted them gone. Looking back at some my early responses to this takeover, I cringe a bit. As time passed, I began to think about the occupation in much different terms. Instead of focusing on my anger, I began to search for answers to the question raised at the end of the previous paragraph.

Yellow-headed Blackbird is a quintessential Malheur sight, and serves a "spark bird" to many who visit.

Yellow-headed Blackbird is a quintessential Malheur sight, and serves as a “spark bird” to many who visit.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the original Bundy standoff. Cliven Bundy seemed to be a disgruntled rancher, who wasn’t happy with government regulations and the federal ownership of large tracts of arid lands across American West. What else is new? This has been going on for as long as I have been going to Malheur. My original visits coincided with the first wave of ‘Sagebrush Rebellion.’ I failed to realize just how intensely this man hated the government and what lengths he might go to in an attempt to usurp federal lands. Worse yet, he seems to have poisoned the well for his own children, who are enslaved by the seeds of hatred and discontent that he planted in them. I found myself reflecting on my own upbringing and wondering what type of people Ammon and Ryan Bundy might have been had they been raised as my siblings instead of being the progeny of Cliven Bundy.

As the occupation of Malheur stretched from days into weeks, my anger towards the Bundy brothers turned to sadness. I began to realize that they have been irreparably scarred by a virulent father whose teachings left them wholly unprepared to function within the framework of the agreed-upon laws that the rest of us abide by. Ammon Bundy never appears to seethe the same way his father seethes, but he is certainly a prisoner to the family credo and perhaps a need to live up to the old man’s expectations.

Growing up on the arid rangelands of Nevada, one might expect that the Bundy boys had a magical childhood. The soundtrack of their youth was surely filled with the songs of Western Meadowlarks, desert sparrows, Sage Thrashers and nighttime hooting of Great Horned Owls. But did they hear them? Coyotes, jackrabbits, pronghorn, and all sorts of snakes and lizards were likely common sights on their family’s land. But did they notice, or were all these animals merely fodder for youngsters learning to shoot straight? Did their father and mother know the names of any of the local plants and animals? Could they, or would they, explain to their boys that all these creatures have a place on the planet and serve as important links in nature’s balance? Sadly, the answer is probably no. Did their parents ever take them on vacations to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches or Zion? Being Mormon, they presumably made pilgrimages to Utah. Do they even know that Bear River National Wildlife Refuge exists, or did they ever go there? Given their father’s disdain for federal land ownership, it seems unlikely. This saddens me.

My parents joined the Audubon Society when I was about five years old. Family vacations usually involved camping on state or federal lands and included visits to many National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Scenic Areas and state wildlife areas. For as long as I can remember, my parents worked on conservation issues. Both are past presidents of the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon), now one of the largest independent chapters in the country.

I don’t recall my parents carping about the government, or talking disrespectfully about elected officials, even those at the opposite end of the political spectrum. If there was something that they thought needed to be changed, they reached out to their representatives and made their feelings known. They organized campaigns, inspiring others to do the same and worked to elect like-minded folks. They routinely testified at government hearings, wrote to and called on elected officials. They were squeaky wheels to be sure. These efforts contributed to the creation of the Big Walnut Creek preserve in central Indiana, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and Oregon’s landmark “Bottle Bill.” While working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, my mom came up with the idea to organize a cleanup of Oregon’s beaches in 1984, the first of its kind in the United States. Thirty-plus years later this annual cleanup is still going strong and many states and countries now make similar efforts to remove trash and debris from their coastlines.

In my home, there was definitely what I call nature nurture–not to be confused with nature vs. nurture. I firmly believe that our values and beliefs are shaped by unique sets of life experiences. These start with where we were raised and who raised us. Given my upbringing, there was little chance that I would grow up to own a gun, or come to believe that transferring any of the public parks and refuges that I visited as a child back into private hands would be a good thing. Birds and other wildlife large and small were valued and to be protected.

I have to wonder…was there much nature nurture in the Bundy childhoods? It seems that they learned plenty about guns and confrontation, while their education about compromise, civil discourse, and the natural world lagged behind. Were the Bundy children taught to value any wildlife? Did they learn how wildlife was abusively exploited for profit before the Audubon Society and Teddy Roosevelt came along and convinced us to think about it differently?

Steens Mountain, and the open country of Harney County, Oregon.

Steens Mountain, and the open country of Harney County, Oregon.

Recent events have been a wake up call for me. It never occurred to me that someone might occupy a wildlife refuge, let alone Malheur, thus denying our rightful access to public lands that we all share. Will this be a one-time occurrence? Will others copycat this takeover in an effort to push their so-called ‘wise use’ agenda? We can’t know what the future holds, but we must recognize that this takeover did not occur “out in the middle of nowhere” as it has often been portrayed. This narrative was repeated frequently during the early days of the occupation. Surprisingly, even President Obama initially called it a “local law enforcement issue.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown pointed out that this seizure of federal property is outside the jurisdiction of state and local law enforcement. This siege was not out in the middle of nowhere. It happened in someone’s backyard…mine! Yours could certainly be next. I can assure you that it’s not a pleasant feeling to have a place that you hold so dear in the hands of folks who would treat it with such disregard.

There are actions we can take to disable the ‘three percenters.’ First, we need to use our affiliations (bird clubs, conservation organizations, Friends of NWR groups etc.) to rally our many allies to make their feelings known, both at the polls and with those already in office. We can educate folks about the cultural, social, and economic impacts that come from birding, sightseeing and wildlife watching on public lands. In addition to these primary benefits, we need to raise awareness to and appreciation of the many ancillary benefits of public lands and access to them. We need to utilize our collective voice to swamp out the misguided idea that such places are underutilized, or that resource extraction might offer a superior, albeit unsustainable economic engine. It is estimated that visitors to Malheur NWR and surrounding public spaces pour upwards of $15 million dollars into the Harney County economy annually, with little impact on or degradation of the landscape. Imagine the economic impact visitors have on communities near our most iconic national parks.

Our best defense going forward is to make sure that there is nature nurture for every child. In birding, we often refer to ‘spark birds.’ Once a spark ignites a fire, be it the one that burns in me or the one that burns in the Bundys, it is eternal and is subsequently passed forward through the generations.

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Dave Irons is a lifelong birder who got his start tagging along on Audubon Society field trips with his parents as a young child in Indiana. The landscapes on which he birded were ultimately his “spark bird” and that continues to the present. Birding is best when there is a spiritual connection to the mountains, streams, deserts, oceans, forests and grasslands that surround him. No place on Earth better represents this for Dave than Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the high desert sagebrush country of southeastern Oregon.