What’s Good for the Bird is Good for the Herd: Cooperation at Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge
Perhaps one of the most insidious ideas that environmentalists and animists alike continue to struggle against is the misguided belief that to be pro-environment is to be automatically anti-human. Nothing could be further from the truth! Embracing the more-than-human community — whether spiritually or scientifically, or both — invites us into deeper, more meaningful relationship with the world and its many beings. Such relationship only helps to cultivate our sense of connection and enhance our well-being, both as individuals and as a species.
This is not to say that relationship is always easy. But it is essential. Acknowledging the interdependence of humans and non-humans on this wild holy earth is not just a foundational concept in modern animism, but a basic ecological fact that informs the most effective conservationist and environmentalist efforts. Given even a moment’s thought, the us-vs-them attitude that denies this connection, that emphasizes our separation and pits the human species against the planet we call home, is patently ridiculous. And yet, it continues to be an incredibly pervasive (and sometimes even persuasive) belief nonetheless.
What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?
As we’ve seen over the past month in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, this separatist attitude rests at the heart of many a call to “return the land to its original inhabitants.” The militants who seized control of the wildlife refuge headquarters in early January claimed to be protesting the tyranny of a federal government that they saw as usurping public lands through oppressive regulations and disproportionate punishment. They sought, among other things, to “return the land” to the local ranchers, farmers and hunters that they saw as the rightful and original owners.
But for many of us, the words “original inhabitants” held a very different meaning. For some, it meant the Northern Paiute Nation, the Native American Indian tribes whose territorial rights to this day “remain unextinguished by treaty” with the United States despite federal and state governments generally ignoring this fact. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation in 1908 under the assumption that the area was unclaimed federal land, although the Oregon Territorial Act from sixty years earlier clearly stated otherwise.
As others have pointed out, the “original inhabitants” of this area also include the astounding diversity of wild non-human life, in particular the migratory bird population which came under threat of extirpation in the 1800s — the very inhabitants that the wildlife refuge was established to protect and restore. Over the past century, the refuge has become one of the most important migratory bird sites on the continent, with 320 different species “returning to the land” every year.
But even when we invoke this desire to “return the land to its original inhabitants” in the name of environmental responsibility, we can quickly run into difficulties. I’ve written before about the problematic metaphors of invasion and warfare in how we speak about ecological restoration and conservation efforts. Environmentalists are not immune to the misplaced belief that pro-earth means anti-human. Like a lot of people, I tend to be more critical of the social groups of which I’m a member, partly because I have more intimate knowledge of what problems need fixing and partly because I feel a greater sense of personal responsibility for fixing them. I’ll admit, sometimes I get very frustrated with my own species, and this frustration translates into language that can sound downright misanthropic. Even as I grumble about the Oregon protesters, I run the risk of making the same mistake they do: seeing the needs of “invasive” humans in opposition to the needs of the “natural” environment, and feeling compelled to pick a side.
Living in relationship is always more complicated than the simplified categories of us-vs-them we try to impose. The fact is — whether we locate our preferred historical period as a time before federal regulations to protect wildlife, or before the encroachment of European ranchers and farmers on Native American territory, or before human settlement disrupted older non-human ecological communities — advocating the return to some idyllic past state is simply not an effective solution to our current challenges. Wherever we try to draw this distinction, we are too often wrong about what the past was actually like. History is just too tempting and convenient a place to project our fantasies of an ideal world, especially in a modern society that rushes towards the future so fast that it outstrips our capacity to imagine a better one. But even aside from our idealization of and ignorance about the past, attempting to recapture a community that no longer exists often entails ignoring the needs of the individuals and communities that exist here and now. This inevitably leads to conflict, and sometimes outright violence against the very people (human and non-human) who share the present with us.
A Story of Conflict and Cooperation
It would serve us well, I think, to remember that “returning the land to its original inhabitants” has just as often been the justification of the invader and the occupier as it has been a cry of the refugee and the exile. Who counts as “original” usually depends on where we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate narratives of history, where our sympathies lie and which groups we identify with, idealize or exoticize. How easy it is to fall back into an us-vs-them attitude when grappling with the complicated issues of social and environmental justice in the face of our country’s undeniably painful legacy of colonization, exploitation, disruption and loss.
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is, in many ways, a microcosm of these on-going tensions among different environmental interest groups, government agencies, tribal associations and individual residents. Although the recent violent occupation has drawn national attention to the refuge, conflict in the area is nothing new:
Malheur’s marshes, ponds and lakes were a vital water source for the Paiute Indians. The Indians later were pushed out by cattle ranchers who used the water to help build up large ranching empires in the late 19th century. The ranchers, in turn, faced pressure from farmers drawn to the region.
After the wildlife refuge was established in the early twentieth century, park managers took steps to restore damaged landscapes by curtailing ranching and farming on the land. However, even into the 1990s, their approach was often guided by top-down regulatory and enforcement strategies developed by experts unfamiliar with the conditions unique to the local human and ecological communities of the region. As a result, these strategies were bogged down by bureaucracy and litigation, slow to change in response to the dynamic needs of local inhabitants.
But if Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a microcosm of conflict, it is also an inspiring example of success. In recent years, new approaches to cooperative land management and participatory conservation efforts have eased tensions and helped to reframe age-old conflicts in ways that benefit everyone, from bird to herd:
Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.
The success of the High Desert Partnership lies in its emphasis on cooperative approaches to problem-solving, reframing entrenched conflicts as shared challenges that can provide an opportunity to discover solutions that are mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This is a lesson drawn from the dynamic balance of living ecosystems themselves. As Nancy Langston, a professor of Environmental History and author of a history of the Malheur Refuge, explains:
Western grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, which means they thrive with disturbance from grazing. Cattle differ from native bison and elk in many ways. But with close attention to plant growth and soil moisture, grazing can foster grassland diversity, store carbon in soils, encourage the growth of grasses along creeks, and improve habitat for endangered birds. Doing this well requires specific local knowledge. Ranchers who work and live on the land often know the place and its limits better than people whose knowledge was gained in distant ecosystems. [emphasis added]
“Since ecological conditions change,” she goes on, “the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.”
By entrusting much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants, this strategy remains flexible and responsive. But it also helps to rebuild trust and foster a sense of shared commitment that is vital to the long-term success of these relationships. Local ranchers began to adopt the slogan: What’s good for the bird is good for the herd. The sentiment perfectly captures the growing appreciation of interconnection in the community.
It is a testament to the success of this approach that, when faced with the violent threat of armed militants, both the managers of the wildlife refuge and the larger community of Harney County responded with a renewed commitment to the collaborative process. Not a single local rancher joined the militants in protest. In an open letter posted to their Facebook page, the Malheur Wildlife Refuse staff stated that, when faced with such challenges:
In Harney County, that means we talk. We have cups of coffee. We have arguments. Together we knit our brows, and together we knit scarves. We understand what those currently occupying the Refuge don’t understand — that Harney County isn’t afraid of tough talk.
We can have effective disagreements and either find resolution, find compromise, or simply agree to disagree. But we do it with respect for the rule of law, and know that our areas of agreement and cooperation are infinitely more powerful than the differences we may face. Mostly, we face those differences together with open dialogue and open gates — not intimidation and threats. We have access to each other, because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations or have difficult conversations. [emphasis added]
Let me repeat that: we have access to each other because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations. Relationship is not always easy, but it is essential, and there is no denying it.
An Animist Approach to Justice
This question of how we define and work for justice in an animistic, ecological context has been an obsession of mine for years now. Do we kill an individual so that the group might survive? Do we cull this species to save that one? Do we act on our limited knowledge, aware that our biases might blind us or our ignorance might undermine our best intentions? Or do we do nothing? And if we do nothing, is this “allowing nature to take its course,” or is it silently acquiescing to the ill-informed decisions we’ve made in the past and which have already set certain patterns of cause-and-consequence in motion? I find myself drawn back again and again to the same basic question: how do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community and the planet?
The events in Oregon over the past several weeks — and our varied responses to them — highlight how these are not abstract theological or philosophical exercises, but questions that cut us to the quick and have real implications for how we understand and act in world. Social and environmental justice are not (and never have been) separate issues. The success of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the resiliency of its community in the face of adversity, can provide us with a real-life example of how principles of cooperation, commitment and trust can help us nurture meaningful, healthy relationships in the more-than-human community.
And yet, this kind of thinking is contrary to the competitive, us-vs-them attitude more often encouraged in our society — indeed, encouraged sometimes in the name of “natural law.” We tend to think of justice as mercantile: the idea that fair relationships require zero-sum, tit-for-tat exchanges in energy and resources, crime and punishment. We have long known that “separate but equal” is a lie that has been used to obscure real injustice and inequality. But we can be too quick to assume that the problem lies in our differences, and that the solution is to seek a one-sized-fits-all answer to injustice that will do away with difficult conversations for good.
When we reframe justice as right relationship, we see that we can be different without being separate. We realize that sometimes those who seek most fervently to distinguish “us” from “them” do so precisely to hide our shared relationship and common responsibility to one another. We come to understand that the root of injustice is this belief in separation, the belief that we can somehow isolate our communities from one another as if we weren’t all connected. Once we give up this notion of separateness, we are forced to define our individuality in other terms. But this does not mean giving up our individuality entirely in favor of a homogenous “oneness,” for we can also see that such homogeneity is itself unnatural and unsustainable.
Living and working cooperatively means adopting methods that are responsive, flexible, and participatory, guided by a shared vision but open to individual inspiration, experimentation and change. Such approaches do not suppress individual diversity, but absolutely require it. Collaboration means finding ways of fostering relationships that are mutually beneficial; this is not to say that everyone gets the same exact thing from a relationship, but that each individual’s needs are being acknowledged and respected, even when those needs differ. We cannot live in healthy community without some notion of individuality to sustain us and help us grapple with the reality that our needs, desires and perspectives are inherently unique and diverse. But this diversity challenges us to think creatively, to discover ways to cultivate “virtuous cycles” in which each person’s well-being enhances rather than detracts from the well-being of others. This is the dynamic, living balance between individual and community, in which each supports and sustains the other, that is at the heart of the animistic approach to justice.
Originally published at alisonleighlilly.com on January 29, 2016.