PHILOMATH — The people who occupied the federal wildlife sanctuary during an armed standoff last January had a fundamental misunderstanding of government-owned Western lands, according to retired Oregon State University professor William Robbins.
Robbins, OSU's emeritus distinguished professor of history, spoke Saturday afternoon before a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 150 people at the Benton County Historical Museum.
Titled “The Malheur Occupation and Public Lands in the West,” his presentation addressed the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that has become the focal point of the debate on federal lands in the West. The talk came two days after a jury Thursday acquitted seven defendants of all charges in the Malheur occupation in federal court in Portland
Robbins’ talk, which had been planned for several weeks, didn’t delve deeply into the verdict's legal implications, but it did offer a great deal of historical context to the occupation and called into question the militants’ argument that the federal government should hand over the refuge to local officials.
“What bothers me as a historian is the fact that they knew very little about the 130 years of history of grazing in Harney County, they knew little about the large cattle empires, they knew nothing about the creation of the refuge,” Robbins said. “It’s also true that they emasculated the constitutional and legal grounding for the refuge and federal lands in the American West.”
Robbins’ talk detailed the unique geography of the Harney Basin, the rise of the cattle barons in the 1870s, the eventual sale of those large cattle properties to the federal government during the Great Depression, the gradual restoration and rehabilitation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and '80s.
“The militants’ demands were anti-federal government demands to restore what I call a 'mythical past' to right the wrongs of the people in Harney County’s population,” Robbins said. “Most of them carry pocket-sized copies of the American Constitution. They raise nothing new about protests about federal land and the American West, but timeworn historical complaints about access to land.”
Robbins said it was important that present-day arguments and discussion consider the history of the area.
“Some people are uninformed and don’t know how the federal government came in control of land,” he said. “So when the occupiers talk about turning the refuge or federal lands over to county government, that’s something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. These are federal lands, and the federal government bequeathed to the state these lands, not the other way around.”
Robbins said much of the disputes in the West came about in similar fashion to ideas expressed in Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey's book “The Tyranny of Distance,” which explored how that country's geographical remoteness was central to shaping its history, identity and future.
“That’s an apt metaphor for Harney County, because it’s so distant from everywhere else,” Robbins said. “No one in the federal government is, in my view, overreaching in Harney County. The federal government has been a positive and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a good example of that.”
Kimberly Jensen, a professor of history at Western Oregon University who was on hand for the talk, said it was crucial that people consider historical context on complex issues such as land ownership and rights.
“Until we have the historical context, we can’t make those crucial decisions that we need to make as citizens,” she said. “And I think it’s terrific that we had such a huge audience here because it shows that a lot of people are interested in understanding the roots of this controversy.”
Robbins received applause throughout his presentation, but there were some in the audience who called into question his understanding of federal laws and the positions of those who occupied the refuge. Robbins, whose talk is based on an article he's set to publish in the Oregon Historical Quarterly later this year, said he takes care to research every element of his findings.
“I’ve been told I don’t know anything and I need to read the Constitution,” he said. “What the pocket constitutionalist spout is these arcane notions of the Constitution. No Supreme Court has ever touched this stuff because it’s beyond the pale.”
Robbins was asked after the talk about his opinion on the implications of the verdict and the notion that it could embolden other militant groups to act.
“My advice is historians should never predict the future,” he said.