The logic of the Bundy-led standoff in Harney County in rural Oregon does not seem to hold up. There are many who live in the the rural counties in Oregon who, like the Bundys, believe that the federal government have no role in their communities even as the public sector drives employment and the economy where they live.
This article explores the contradiction:
A federal trial is underway in Portland, Ore., of people charged in connection with the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. Ammon and Ryan Bundy—sons of anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy—are among those charged with conspiracy and firearms violations for the takeover of the remote federal refuge near Burns, in Harney County, in early 2016.
The Bundys and other anti-government activists subscribe to a fundamentalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that holds that the federal government cannot legally own or control most of the land in Western states. They seek a complete turnover of those federal lands to local government and private landowners.
The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge exposed deep conflicts and contradictions in a region that prizes self-reliance and the private sector, even as many residents rely on government for their jobs and livelihoods.
Briels helped organized a local support group — called the Committee of Safety — to defend the Bundys and their followers during the refuge occupation. He agrees with the Bundys that the federal government has no right to own most of the land here, though he readily acknowledges that a lot of his neighbors make their living working for government agencies — for instance, overseeing grazing rights and conservation programs, or fighting wildfires.
“When I moved here in 1978, there weren’t many forest service people or BLM people here,” he said. “But when the environmentalists and everybody shut the logging down, and people quit using our natural resources, there were more and more who went to work for BLM and the forest service. The people had to have jobs.”
According to the Oregon Employment Department, right now, 49 percent of Harney County jobs are in the public sector—in federal, state and local government. Only rural Wheeler County has a higher percentage. In contrast, the urban Portland metro area has 13.7 percent government employment. Eugene—home to the University of Oregon—has 19.7 percent.
“In general, we see a correlation where the higher the percentage of public land, the higher the employment base would be in public employment,” said regional economist Damon Runberg, who is based in Bend, about 120 miles west of Burns. There is a comparable concentration of public-sector jobs in rural counties in neighboring Idaho and Washington, according to data provided by those states’ employment departments.
Federal jobs like her husband’s pay better-than-average wages for the area, and typically come with health and retirement benefits that many who work in agriculture and ranching lack. “Antagonism against the federal government is palpable in this region,” said Fleuraud, “and it was this way long before the Bundys showed up. Although it is a ranching community, it is a fact that the public sector drives the economy here. But there is this odd denial of that fact.”