It isn’t often in today’s political environment that members of Congress make a speech that has the potential to bring people together instead of deepening the partisan divide.
On Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., did just that.
He took the podium on the House floor and spoke from the heart about the growing discontent in rural communities with federal policies that threaten not only the livelihood of farmers and ranchers but their culture.
Although he had only intended to spend five minutes addressing the conflict simmering in Harney County, Walden ended up talking for almost 30.
It was the strong emotions behind his plea for understanding and change that captured national attention.
Walden managed to condemn the takeover of federal property by armed protesters this week while making the case about how people can be driven to such extremes.
“I hope people understand how serious this is felt and how heartfelt this is by those who pay their taxes and try and live by the law and do the right things, and how oppressed they feel by the government that they elect and the government they certainly don’t elect, and how much they will always defend the flag and the country…” he said.
Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy, the head of the militia group that seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Monday, is from a state with 84 percent of its land in federal ownership. The epic battle that has been raging for decades between cattlemen in Nevada and federal agencies over grazing rights is well chronicled in the book “Storm over Rangelands,” written by Wayne Hage in 1989.
Bundy and others are not only protesting the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers for arson but the constitutional right of the government to own large tracts of land.
Walden told House members that he could empathize with Bundy’s anti-government stance given what he has witnessed while representing a largely agricultural sector of Oregon since 1999.
He said distrust of the government has been growing in his district, which is more than 50 percent in federal ownership.
The concerns of ranchers and farmers, he said, center on the increasing burden of regulations that is making it more difficult for them to grow the nation’s food.
Oregon’s Second Congressional District is the seventh largest in the U.S. and the largest of the state’s five districts. It covers about two-thirds of the state and includes all of Wasco, Hood River, Gilliam, Sherman, Wheeler, Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Jackson, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties, in addition to part of eastern Josephine County.
There are 13,284 farms in the district that encompass 13.9 million acres. The average size of farms is 1,048 acres and the combined yearly market value of all products sold is $2.4 billion. Last year, cattle topped the list of commodities in Oregon with a market value of more than $922 million.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture estimates there are 1.3 million head of cattle in the state and Walden represents a good share of these beef producers.
“I will always fight for you. But we have to understand there is a time and a way,” Walden told his constituents in the Jan. 5 speech.
And then he warned congressional leaders and the Obama administration that changes were needed in land-use laws that threatened not just a lifestyle, but a culture.
Many representatives from large cities likely didn’t understand that remark. Little time is spent by people from urban centers, who often control the vote in their state, to understand the needs of families who choose to reside in wide open spaces, many for generations.
“We need to be better at hearing people from all walks of life and all regions of our country and understanding this anger that is out there and what we can do to bring about correct change and peaceful resolution,” said Walden at the close of his speech.
And then he issued what can only be construed as a warning: “It is not too late. We can do this. It is a great country. We have the processes to do it right.”
We commend Congressman Walden for taking such a strong stand on behalf of the minority population that lives in rural America. It is time for our government leaders to care enough about the people they serve to challenge the status quo.
There is a reason that many westerners have become increasingly afraid of a government that is usurping their rights. It is unfair that decisions are being made about rural life by people who are far removed from the land.
If Walden’s message is heeded, the time may never come when this cultural conflict becomes an actual civil war.
May his words echo in the halls of Congress and cause our leaders to seek change so that one sector of society doesn’t continue to overpower another.
Righteous anger doesn’t dissipate until justice is done.