Last month, voters in this small eastern Oregon county of 7,800 residents carefully pondered two important ballot questions. No, they werent about increased funding for schools, balancing the budget, or even term limits. One called for banning the United Nations from the county; the other would permit residents to cut down trees on federal land without U.S. Forest Service approval.
Both measures passed overwhelmingly, with more than 50 percent of the countys 4,684 registered voters casting their ballots.
The "Sagebrush Rebellion" has struck again.
This time its in a timber region similar in size to Connecticut, but worlds apart in terms of ideology. Old-timers in Grant County pine for the glory days of logging and ranching on wide-open swaths of land, more than half of which now bears the ubiquitous: Property of U.S. Government. No Trespassing.
These are a fiercely proud people, born with sawdust in their hair and the Western spirit in their veins. Theyve lived through countless hard winter nights, a dying logging and mill-based economy (which has led to the second highest unemployment rate in the state) and an endless stream of environmentalism attacking their way of life. Dont mind them, then, if they have a healthy distrust for folks who are "not from around here."
Proponents of the ballot measure allowing for public harvesting of timber on federal lands argue that U.S. Forest Service restrictions -- a result of environmentalist lobbying -- are strangling the regions lifeblood. Claiming the measure will provide them greater stewardship of federal forests, they seek to salvage dead, dying and wind-damaged trees on federal lands, which could help prevent forest fires and would offer a much-needed boost to local mills.
In Oregon, ballot questions dont have to undergo legal review before being presented to voters. A matter is assumed lawful unless challenged in court. Controversial issues often are.
As for the ban on the United Nations, according to the Associated Press, a majority of county voters feel the U.N. wants to "take away peoples guns, seize private property, control the education of children and establish one world religion Pantheism -- and world taxation." Road signs are already being erected declaring Grant County a "U.N.-free Zone."
The measure was sparked by residents who worry that the U.N. might designate land in Grant County as a "United Nations World Heritage" site or a Biosphere Reserve, which would provide the U.N. a foothold into the county and lead towards greater regulation of remaining private land.
While that might sound crazy to some in the county, who believe the new law will make them a laughingstock, voters passed the measure 1,326 in favor to 959 against. Herb Brusman, who drafted the measure, told the East Oregonian, "It basically was a statement to be made. . .The less we have contact with (the United Nations) the better."
Fear of U.N. control is not uncommon for many Westerners who are quick to resist any perceived government intrusion foreign or domestic into their independent way of life, which they feel is in danger of extinction.
Farmers, ranchers and loggers are constantly faced with increased land and water restrictions on behalf of the snail darter, spotted owl or whatevers next on the Endangered Species list. Westerners are skeptical of government scientists whose findings are later disproved -- with alarming regularity or shown to have been manipulated.
Last summer, irrigation water was cut off to 1,400 farmers during a severe drought in the Klamath River Basin near the California-Oregon border to protect endangered salmon and sucker fish. This bankrupted many valley farms, cost the regional economy more than $130 million, and almost led to an armed insurrection; Federal agents had to be called in to stop farmers from forcing open the head gates to the river. In the end, a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found "no sound scientific basis" for the government's decision to cut off the water. In fact, the report suggests that high river flows in the Klamath Basin might actually be lethal to the salmon.
In March, separate investigations by the Department of Interior (DOI) and the General Accounting Office (GAO) confirmed that a group of federal and state wildlife workers submitted false evidence of endangered lynx habitat in three national forests, which could have led to further restrictions on federal lands of activities such as snowmobiling, skiing and livestock grazing (read Here a Lynx, There a Lynx).
It should come as no surprise then when Western citizens, such as those in Grant County, look for ways to fight back. As County Judge Dennis Reynolds explained to the Associated Press, "These people are lashing out in the only way they can."
Theres no telling where the "Sagebrush Rebellion" might strike next.June 6, 2002