Somehow I lucked into being able to tag along with Dr. Angus McIntosh and Todd Macfarlane on their four stop Western Rangelands Property Rights workshop tour through three counties in Southeast Oregon, with workshops in Fields, Mt. Vernon, Burns and Ontario.
In addition to all the great workshop information, which I absorbed little by little, and learned more and more over the course of all four workshops, the thing that was most fun for me was all the people I got a chance to meet, and all the other things I learned along the way that went way above and beyond the workshops.
The Oregon leg of the whirlwind tour started out near Fields, Oregon, with an overnight stop with Charmaign “Sis” and Nolan Edwards at the Colony Ranch. They had the good fortune of getting a private tutorial from Dr. McIntosh, as he looked at their allotment map with them, identified stock water locations, and talked about the history and operation of the allotment.
As we visited with the Edwards, I learned a lot about the Pueblo Mountain Grazing allotment, and the ranchers who operate on that allotment, including the Colony Ranch, Trout Creek Ranch, and the Oregon End Ranch. It sounds like they’ve been having some real struggles the last few years dealing with the drought, lack of stock water, and trying to work with the BLM. One of the biggest challenges is the Pueblo Mountain Wilderness Study area, and their inability to develop stock water in that area, or even haul water to utilize the feed that’s there. They said that despite the drought, there’s actually been plenty of feed, but they haven’t been able to utilize it because of the lack of stock water, and apparently the BLM has fought them on everything they have tried to do, from replacing old pipelines to maintaining access to haul water.
The Oregon End Ranch, operated by Jim & Helen McDonald, is located on the backside of Pueblo Mountain, out in the middle of the allotment (and about as far out in the middle nowhere as you can get). I learned that at the Oregon End, Jim McDonald holds down the ranch by himself during the week, while Helen works in Winnemucca. Last year, Jim himself earned an ambulance ride to Winnemucca, followed by a lifeflight to a bigger hospital, where he spent about a week in the ICU. Apparently he had been working with his good neighbors, Joe and Monte Kingen from the Trout Creek Ranch who had come to help out, doctoring calves, when an ornery cow got the drop on him, and cracked his head open. Although he almost bled to death, it’s a darn good thing Joe and Monte were there. While Joe was trying to tend to Jim, Monte loaded the horses in the trailer and tried to shuffle things around. After Joe finally got Jim loaded in the ambulance and on his way, he went to find Monte, who ended up getting stuck in the truck, and was trying to dig out with a shovel. Monte’s first words to his dad were something to the effect that he didn’t know why anyone would have anything but a four-wheel-drive truck out in that kind of country. Joe looked around in the truck for a minute and figured out that it had new-fangled push button four-wheel-drive, instead of what 11 year-old Monty was used to in the old ranch trucks he had been allowed to drive. Between shovels and push buttons, though, they eventually got out.
And I learned that Kingens themselves have a very interesting story. They came to the Trout Creek Ranch from Russia, where Joe spent a couple years working for one of the outfits that is trying to carve big, new, western-style, Angus genetics ranches out of the Russian wilderness. In addition to being a real adventure, it sounds like it was pretty frustrating for awhile, but eventually Joe was able to have Becky and the kids join him, and he got some better horses, which would help make any good cowboy feel better about life. Given the adventure that it was, someone could probably write a whole story about that whole experience, but I don’t really have time or room to do it justice here.
I was fascinated to learn about the one-room school in Fields, covering grades K-8, that now has a gym (which is where the workshop was held), where Monte Kingen, and his younger sister, Reata, are two of the 12 students who attend the school. And I better not forget to say something about mom – Becky Kingen – because if there is one thing I learned over the course of four days, it is that Becky is quite a firecracker and organizer. She is the one who invited McIntosh to come do the workshops and made all the arrangements. Without her, it probably wouldn’t have been much of a tour. Hats off to Becky Kingen.
And what a pleasure it was to get a chance to know the Edwards. It was both gut-wrenching and heart-warming to learn more about their story. Sis Edwards had this quiet, understated spirit of true substance about her. After getting to know her just a little bit, I had this sense that there must be more to that story. So when I got a chance I asked Becky Kingen about it. I could tell Sis and Becky were close, so I figured Becky would know. Becky went on to tell me how, along with whatever other trials and blessings life has dished out to the Edwards, they tragically lost two of their three children way before their time, with a young son dying of cancer at something like age 11, and their dear daughter Sammi in a car accident while she was away to college in Arizona, traveling to a rodeo. I could hardly stand the thought of it. As I started paying even closer attention to Sis, and the things she was saying, and what she understands, I started seeing the true depth of her character and understanding, and I came to realize what a true treasure of a human being she is. I sure hope to have a chance to get to know her better. As far as I’m concerned, she should run for governor or even president. She is the real deal – the living, breathing embodiment of just exactly the opposite of what we have in office right now. And I learned that in addition to running the ranch with good help from Sis and their son Chad, Nolan can cook a real mean (good) breakfast. After 4-5 years of drought, Nolan was so excited to see some water this year that he had a spotting scope set up on the kitchen counter so that he could watch the water level rise in his meadows as the snow melts. It’s amazing how a desert rancher with a little bit of water can be as excited as a kid in a candy store.
From Fields, we went to Grant County for a workshop in Mt. Vernon. At first I thought the capable security detail that was tagging along was probably overkill, but when we pulled up at the Grange Hall, there were a bunch of protesters there waiting to meet us. Although it quickly became apparent that the protesters didn’t even have an idea what they were protesting, I was glad to have security along, even if just for effect. Ranchers were having a meeting, so apparently that was reason enough to protest.
At a certain point in the meeting in Mt. Vernon, the discussion turned to Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who had recently come under attack. Just that week I had heard a story about him taking charge of the Grant County resource plan, that had even me wondering if he had gone too far – until I started hearing and seeing the other side of the story. But once I got the opportunity to both see and hear the other side of the story, including the terrible fire that hit Grant County last summer, what it had done, and what it could have one, while everyone from the feds down to the county commissioners, who should have been doing something about it, sat on their butts and let it happen, I realized how important it is to be able to see the whole picture before even considering passing judgment. Once I realized just how negligent and complicit the county commissioners had been, I had a change of tune, and became thankful for the kind of county sheriff who would show some initiative and take charge, while other so-called leaders were waiting to have someone else pull their strings. It quickly became apparent how much the people in the meeting love and appreciate their sheriff, and I was glad to see that.
On that score, I and everyone else at the meeting were surprised by the appearance of this mysterious woman, who snuck into the meeting through the back door, and sat down. She turned out to be Sibel Edmonds of Boiling Frogs Post, an independent media outlet in Bend, who has taken a genuine interest in the Sheriff Palmer situation. Apparently Sibel learned about the meeting late, but made the long drive, and had the chance to speak for a few minutes about her desire to help tell the real story about Sheriff Palmer, and what is going on, and her conclusion that a big part of why he is under so much pressure right now is because he is actually on President Obama’s (s)hit list for previous positions he has taken that don’t square with the Obama agenda.
To help underscore all that we stayed that night with Rick & Sharon Brookshire, who lost almost everything on their place (shop, barn, corrals, etc.) except their house in the fire. And we heard about their neighbor, Tad Houpt, who is an independent logging contractor, who had been one of the organizers of the workshop, but had been so sick he hadn’t been able to attend the meeting. We heard about the retaliation that has been unleashed against Tad based on his outspoken criticism of how the fire was handled, which came within a gnat’s whisker of burning him out too. We were glad to see that he was on the mend enough the next morning to come outside to talk to us a little bit, and I got a chance to hear him explain exactly what happened with the fire, and how it was so badly mis-handled and mis-managed. Yet because he’s got the guts to say something about it, he too is being targeted. It’s enough to make just about anyone want to pull their hair out.
Another person whose acquaintance I was able to make in Grant County was Sharon Livingston. More tales of courage in the face of despair. I heard her tell Macfarlane that she should have gone to law school way back when, but she did what women could do back then – teach school or become a nurse. So she started teaching school and married a rancher. Unfortunately, he passed away 20 years ago, and left her with the task of running the ranch with her son/partner, who likewise ended up dying early of a heart attack within just the past year or so, leaving her a place to run mostly by herself. But she must know what she’s doing. She’s a past president of the Oregon CattleMEN’s Association. She and Sis Edwards would make quite a pair. Sharon is a staunch supporter of Sheriff Palmer, and a good friend of Dwight and Susie Hammond. I could tell that anyone would be lucky to have her as a friend.
On our way back to Burns we ended up spending a lot of time talking about Harney County politics and what it would actually take to effect any meaningful change in the county. That was the first time I heard about the upstart Malheur Redress website/newspaper, and decided then and there to try to write one of the first stories. We interrupted that discussion just long enough to stop and tidy-up the LaVoy Finicum memorial along the highway. Like the big cross says, RIP LaVoy!
In between workshops, Macfarlane, who happens to be the LaVoy Finicum family attorney, spent a lot of his time working on the Finicum case, interviewing people, and talking to attorneys. At one point I heard him slip an unexpected cuss word when he learned that despite his best efforts, including repeated requests for access to inspect LaVoy Finicum’s pickup truck, especially while he was back in Oregon for a few days, once again he was being stonewalled and denied access to the truck.
The workshop in Burns was a packed house in the comfortable back room of Glory Days Pizza. The crowd had lots of questions, including what could be done to help the Hammonds. McIntosh started out the Burns Workshop by talking about 18 USC Section 1855, which makes it a crime to start a fire on federal lands. In applying this code to the Hammond situation, he pointed out and emphasized the last sentence of the statute, which says “This section shall not apply in the case of a fire set by an allottee in the reasonable exercise of his proprietary rights in the allotment.” Based on that language, he said he still can’t even begin to make sense of what happened to the Hammonds.
I have started to wonder if Dr. McIntosh has a photographic memory. He talks about congressional acts and case law like they are his kids birthdays. At one point, he asked how and why the Federal government and the BLM have gotten such a stranglehold on things. Then he explained it is because WE LET THEM, because we haven’t understood or stood up for our rights. He said that although the Ninth Circuit had reversed the Hage case, he wasn’t that concerned because the Curtin v. Benson case is still good law. But Macfarlane countered and said that he is concerned, because the Curtin case is over 100 years ago, while Hage is right now, today, here, in the Ninth Circuit. Macfarlane also said that he had really come to love Oregon, and would seriously think about relocating to Southeast Oregon – if it wasn’t for the fact that Oregon is in the Ninth Circuit. On that score, he noted that Arizona was in the process of petitioning to withdraw from the Ninth Circuit and be reassigned to the Tenth, to which people started clapping.
After the Burns workshop I had to chuckle as I watched the folks who Todd Macfarlane and Dr. Mac were going to be staying with that night, approach Macfarlane and ask if he and Angus still needed dinner, and what their plans were. Macfarlane said they’d had some pizza, so they were good to go, and didn’t want to mess up any other plans. The woman in the pair said her only plan was to go home and drink some Tequila. She wanted to know what a pair of Scotsman like Macfarlane & McIntosh would be drinking. I almost had to laugh out loud as I watched the color drain from his face as he stuttered and stammered and explained that they were both Mormon, so they would only be drinking water. To which she replied “we didn’t used to drink much either until all this started happening in Harney County, but that kind of drove us to start.” How can you argue with that? I’m not going to divulge where they stayed, but Macfarlane said it was first class, and he’d never seen so many horsehair mecates in one house in his life.
The next day, thanks to a good start we ended up in Malheur County fairly early, and because we had time to kill, spent some time at the John & Lacey Blake Ranch, Southwest of Vale, where Lacey fed us lunch. While we were seemingly far removed from everything, Todd Macfarlane’s phone started going crazy. He was getting all kinds of calls and texts about some kind of drama that was unfolding. According to the information he was receiving, the FBI was headed to the Finicum ranch on the Arizona Strip with cattle trucks, to start impounding cattle. He spent the next several hours attempting to marshal the onslaught of conflicting information. Instead of calling out the militia, the first thing he was trying to do was get a cameraman out there to document everything that was happening. And I overheard him tell that person and everyone else, “No guns. Absolutely no guns. If this is happening, we can’t stop it. All we’re trying to do is document what is going on.” Then he started trying to coordinate efforts to get someone in the air – eyes in the sky – to try to figure out what was really going on. Other words I heard him say a lot were “Due Process. They can’t do something like that without due process.” Eventually, he started letting people know that it had been a false alarm. Apparently, the FBI had been raiding a dairy that belongs to the FLDS trust in the polygamous community of Colorado City, located less than 10 miles from the Finicum home in Cane Beads, Arizona (which had Macfarlane spitting Mormon expletives all by itself), and apparently someone mistakenly thought they were headed to the Finicum Ranch. Because I have heard other people wonder the same thing, given the number of children, I couldn’t help but ask Macfarlane if Finicums themselves were polygamists. He told me they were not. He said, “if you ever get a chance to see some Short Creek Polygamists, you would definitely be able to see and tell the difference.” He went on to say that he knows of lot of Short Creek Polygamists, and in his opinion most of them are real good people, but he did clarify that he had never seen Jeanette Finicum or her daughters in pioneer prairie dresses, with rolled bangs and fully tressed locks.
So much for a quiet afternoon at the Blake Ranch. Next thing I knew, Macfarlane was in a hurry to get to a pre-arranged jam session in Ontario, with Octagenarian attorney Fred Kelly Grant, just so they could size each other up. On his way to that meeting Macfarlane was both driving and talking on his cell phone with a high-powered plaintiff’s attorney about the Finicum case. Suddenly, he started paying closer attention to his rear-view mirrors, and muttered “Hells bells, what now?” and dropped his phone in his lap as we were pulled over by an Oregon State trooper, who ended up giving Macfarlane a warning for talking on the phone while driving, without a hands-free device. As soon as the stop was over, he traded seats with McIntosh so that he could keep talking on the phone. He promptly called the other attorney back, who said, “don’t tell me you just got pulled over for driving and talking on your phone at the same time, and you’re back on the phone again?” Macfarlane said, “yeah, I know, that’s why I traded places with McIntosh, and he’s driving now.”
The workshop in Ontario was probably the biggest and best of the tour. With the threat of an Owyhee Canyons National Monument breathing down their necks, people in Malheur County are worked up, and very concerned about the prospects. And thankfully, there seems to be more unity in that community. In addition to County Judge, Dan Joyce, Commissioner Larry Wilson, and Sheriff Brian Wolfe attended the workshop to see if it would provide any information that could help in the effort to stop or deal with the prospect of a monument declaration. Having been through a similar experience in Kane County, Utah when the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created without any warning, Macfarlane talked a little bit about his experiences there and elsewhere in Southern Utah. He made reference to what is known as the coordination process, and said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He told those in attendance that they should use every tool at their disposal to address the situation.
After the meeting, Dr. McIntosh and Macfarlane shared a few cookies and handshakes with others in the parking lot, as they packed up and were getting ready to pull out – trying to make it as far as Twin Falls that night. I heard McIntosh on the phone with Becky Kingen who was asking about setting up a workshop in Winnemucca. This was Tuesday, and from what I could tell, McIntosh was going to be headed home to Craig, Colorado, then to LaJunta, Colorado, that weekend, then back to Beaver, Utah, and Ely, Nevada, the next week, with Winnemucca in the works. He certainly deserves the title “Road Warrior.”
In another piece, I’ll try to summarize what I learned from the workshops.