I'm driving 85 mph, trying to get as far away as possible from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Two colleagues and I holed up there the first week of January, covering Ammon Bundy's armed occupation of federal buildings and ultimately crashing their event. Now, a large Ford truck spewing diesel fumes is following us. One colleague pulls out our camera and begins rolling video. The truck's driver notices, slows, but continues to follow us nearly 30 miles to the turnoff to the main highway. None of us resume normal breathing until we cross the Idaho state line two hours later.
Needless to say, my colleagues and I are not militant supporters. We were representing the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group based in Denver that, among other things, helps connect the dots between anti-government extremists and the "land transfer" movement and attendant legislation that has increasingly found its way into Western state legislatures. Some of the Western politicians championing the cause have visited the refuge or held phone conversations with its armed occupants.
On Jan. 4, CWP sent my colleagues and me from Montana to Burns, Ore., which happens to be less than three hours from where I grew up in Nampa, Idaho, the reddest city in the reddest county of one of the reddest states. While I used to be embarrassed by my hometown, I've now embraced it. As a former journalist, I love seeing the news unfold and meeting the people involved, even when their political ideas are radically different from my own. Understanding how ultraconservatives think, and not being afraid of or offended by them, would serve me well in Burns, I thought.
One afternoon, the Harney County sheriff facilitated a town hall meeting attended by more than 1,000 residents and media. Overwhelmingly, the residents asked the Bundys to leave the refuge. But they also made it clear that while they disagreed with the Bundys' tactics, they couldn't thank them enough for waking up the community—and indeed the nation—to the raw deal Western ranchers were getting from the feds.
When there's a complete breakdown in trust and when the cultural chasm between two sides is too vast to breach, the facts don't much matter. Experience counts, and where you're from matters a lot. This was true in Burns, but a variation of it colors our nightly news and even our relations between communities here in Montana.
Harney County residents may not care for the sage grouse or support a potential national monument in the Owhyee Canyonlands, but if America's public lands were transferred to local governments, they stand to lose a lot. Grazing fees would increase and states would be saddled with the expensive work of cleaning up abandoned mines and managing wildfires. This would lead to a selloff to private development interests, locking out sportsmen. In Oregon, there are 5,827 mines on federal public lands and estimated cleanup costs range from $560 million to $1.2 billion. Are the Bundys and their ilk really going to pony up for that when they can't even pay their own grazing bill?
But what's more interesting to me than the facts that support keeping America's public lands funded by all Americans is the rhetorical and relationship breakdown happening in our country and, at times, in our own city.
I'd guess the people of Harney County have more in common with the people of Miles City than Los Angeles, New York or even Missoula. To be an American means something vastly different if you live in an urban area, even in the West, versus a ranch in rural Oregon where your closest neighbor lives 20 miles away, and that gap appears only to be widening.
In Missoula, we like to think we live in a righteously progressive bubble that is far more enlightened than the rest of the state. Too many Missoulians have never even been to Frenchtown, let alone Billings or Havre. We pay a price for that paternalistic attitude in state politics, especially at the legislature. At times our community's groupthink has meant we attack our own—people with a worldview we probably agree with 85 percent of the time. This played out recently in the debate over the best ways to preserve agricultural lands in Missoula County.
How do you repair an urban-rural divide? I think it's similar to how you work to end racism or homophobia. You hang out with people who are different from you, who aren't the typical folks you'd meet at work or church or your kid's soccer game. You get to know their stories and you listen more than you talk. You build a relationship, which inherently involves trust.
That's a long game, though, and when the threat of violence is involved, as it is in Burns, the ability to have a conversation or a competition of ideas is severely limited. Yes, the federal government needs to do a better job of telling its story, of showing Americans the value received from their tax dollars. They should ensure BLM staff in places like Burns aren't dropped in fresh out of some Ivy League grad program, tone- deaf or oblivious to the local way of life.
But so long as people like the Bundys take the law into their own hands and threaten violence, civility and sensibility cannot return to America's democratic conversation. That confrontational climate forces you to pick a side and stand up for it rather than play the long, hard game of building a relationship.
By the week's end, my group chose to dive in. We outed ourselves as conservationists.
After Ammon Bundy and his entourage held a press conference, my boss, Barrett Kaiser, stepped up to the tree of mics facing video cameras from around the world. "The one thing we've all heard here is that they should go home," he said. "No, they shouldn't just go home, they should go to jail. You shouldn't be able to steal a refuge, threaten violence, all in a self-aggrandizing perversion of what you think the Constitution actually means."
Militants attempted to shout down and silence Kaiser, but he stood his ground. After he'd said his piece, the media encircled him, asking questions as he made his way to my car. "Get in, get in, get in," I said, seeing our tracker fire up his engine in my rearview mirror. The long game would have to wait another day.
Caitlin Copple served on the Missoula City Council for three years and is a public affairs and communications consultant based in Missoula. To see the full video of Kaiser's speech, visit facebook.com/centerforwesternpriorities