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Land use | Land | News | Environment | Politics | Economy | Nation | local | An Occupation In Eastern Oregon

Walden Says Harney County Occupation Not Legal, But Echoes Residents' Frustration


Congressman Greg Walden

The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is in its 11th day. Armed men who describe themselves as defenders of the Constitution and advocates for those who “work the land” took over the complex of buildings in Harney County, near Burns, on Saturday, Jan. 2.

It’s been labeled a kind of standoff, even though there’s no word from federal or local law enforcement about when this group, illegally using federal equipment, vehicles and computers, will be legally compelled to leave.

Congressman Greg Walden represents the state’s second district, which includes most of rural Oregon, including Harney County. He spoke on the House floor last week about the armed occupation. On Wednesday, Think Out Loud host Dave Miller followed up with Walden about his remarks and the ongoing situation.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Greg Walden: “My plan was to give voice to the frustration that the people I represent often feel, that’s playing itself out in this most recent iteration protest going on, which I do not condone, by the way. It’s above and beyond what is necessary and lawful and protesters should leave … I think people feel just left out in eastern Oregon, all too often. [W]e’re not the population center of the state. And too often, people don’t understand our way of life, our culture, and what it’s all about. To live on the range, and to deal with both the harsh weather and environment, as well as raise the top Oregon agriculture commodity, livestock, it’s a tough business.”

The Congressman’s prepared remarks were only five minutes, but he ended up speaking for nearly half an hour.

Greg Walden: “It just all flooded out. Seventeen years of fighting the fight, and dealing with how we get treated in the rural communities in eastern Oregon, thinking about the people’s lives, the poverty, sometimes the desperation, the loss of the mills, the loss of the jobs. Just the thought to our lifestyle, whether that’s hunting or fishing or you know, driving off-road vehicles, whatever it is, public access or forests, thinking of the fights over how fires are fought or not fought, thinking about the litigation, the regulatory threats, some of the things I’ve been working on very recently involving a law I wrote on how to protect Steens Mountain and how the agencies refused to follow the law and fight with me on it. It just all poured out and it just kept going by the way.  That’s probably the longest speech I’ve given on the House floor.”

Last week, Think Out Loud spoke at length with LaVoy Finicum of Arizona, one of the armed occupiers who is from out of state. Finicum skewered the federal government, accusing it of overreach.

LaVoy Finicum: “It’s not just the ranching rights: The access rights are being taken away; the recreational rights are being taken away; the logging rights are being taken away. These decisions are to be made by the state of Oregon, by the counties themselves — not by a central government thousands of miles away. These rights belong to the people. This is a 10th Amendment issue. This is the intent-and-letter-of-the-Constitution issue.”

This week, Dave Miller asked Walden if he agreed with Finicum’s remarks.

Greg Walden: “Well, no. Come on, these issues have been litigated as to whether the federal government started with these lands and how they should be managed. But again, to me, it’s not the legal issue here; the constitutional argument they’re making, I think they’re wrong. But the underlying issue is that people in these communities have seen what’s happened when the federal government, through policy, through courts, through litigation, whatever, have basically dramatically reduced management of our forests, and just come out across eastern and central Oregon. Find a mill. Find active forest management. There’s very little of it, compared with what there used to be …  My point — and this is what people seem to miss — is it’s hard to have faith in a government and a process when you participate locally and then you feel like it’s all rigged to begin with; that they’re going to make the decision they’re going to make anyway. Why participate? And you can dismiss that, you can say whatever you want but at the end of the day, that’s how people feel out there. That’s how people feel out there. That’s how they feel and you can’t ignore that reality.”

On whether he is working to change to the law that required the Hammonds serve a mandatory minimum sentence for their arson under 1996 federal anti-terrorism legislation:

Greg Walden: “Set the Hammonds’ situation itself aside. They made mistakes, they violated the law. I’m saying, going forward … for legitimate agricultural practices, where there’s not criminal intent, where there was the proper following of procedures, can you try and address that? In a way that doesn’t put them as terrorists? And I think you can. We’re working on it.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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