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The Cowliphate and Poisoned Kids: Twin Assaults on The Commons


When I opened up my Facebook feed today, 90 percent on the items on my feed were equally divided between the Bundy Cowliphate here in Oregon and the poisoning of the water supply in Flint, my hometown. Given my decades of Public Lands’ Conservation activism, both topics are dear to me. Let’s start with the first:


Sign in Burns, OR (Photo: Don Francis)

The Public Lands’ ranching family, the Hammonds, whose sentence for Arson was ostensibly the reason for the armed occupation at the Wildlife Refuge, are not nice people with a history. . The crime they pleaded Guilty to was no laughing mater. They poached a bunch of deer and set fire to Public Lands to cover the crime – an effort to drive away hunters. Not only did it destroy habitat, it endangered nearby camping hunters and wild lands firefighters. They lied and said they were burning invasive species, but time-stamped photos taken by the hunters and testimony from one of the Hammond sons himself  proved otherwise.

That said, I find the entire concept of Mandatory Minimum Sentences to be an horrific assault on Citizen Democracy. It has been quite instrumental in the rise of incarceration rates and for-profit prisons in the past few decades. As usual, it is used almost exclusively on youth, minorities and social activists. When it was being ill-used on environmental activists – witness Jeff Free Leurs 23-year sentence (he served ten before release) for arson for protest burning three new vehicles so slightly that two of them were later sold by the dealer – I guarantee the Teahadis invading Harney County applauded.

I’ve witnessed hundreds, if not thousands of my allies – Civil Rights and Eco-activists – honorably get arrested over the years for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience actions seeking to protect Public Lands and vulnerable species from industrial society exploitation and defending the human rights of all people. So, the Kid Glove Treatment the Administration has given the occupiers galls me. That my governor did not call out the Guard and admittedly went along with an Administration No-Talk Rule and kept quiet about it at a $100,000 a week cost to Oregon taxpayers galls me.

That the press has fallen for the nothing-to-do-with Mandatory Sentences preposterous airing of how aggrieved these ranchers are due to their having to pay for their grazing their cattle on Public property – payments that are at a 97% discount over what private rangeland leases run makes me furious. That the Teahadis have destroyed Public Land, carved new roads on Refuge land and, unforgivably rifled thru Native artifacts and used on-site government heavy equipment to build a road thru a sacred Paiute site more than galls me. The FBI killed Native occupiers of Native Land at Wounded Knee!

While I certainly don’t want to see another MOVE bombing, Waco, Ruby Ridge massacre (I’ll never get over them assassinating Vicki Weaver as she stood unarmed, baby-in-arms in her doorway or the many people burned alive in Waco or the firefighters being told to stand down as an entire city neighborhood was burned down – bombed by the city’s own government), you can’t help but wonder why the Feds did not immediately cut off the road and keep the public and media out for “safety” reasons like they do at environmental blockades, treesits, etc.; that they didn’t cut the electricity, cell service, Internet, etc. and wait for them to come out, boggles me. They even are allowed to drive to town for pizza!

The Bovine Existentialist Threat

Then there is the issue of cattle. Do I like cattle on Public Lands? Hell, no. I’m a vegetarian. I don’t even eat cows. The prolific Eco-analyst, George Wuerthner, has written all one needs to know why.

Common Ground

At the same time, I’m not anti-rancher. I worked with a rancher in Ferry County, WA in the 1970s. Ferry County is the state’s poorest county – the Harney County of Washington. And like Harney, 40% of the jobs are government jobs – Bundy sure chose an odd battlefield for his anti-government jihad. Is it any wonder the local community wants the Teahadis gone as soon as possible?

Jack McLellan had a 900-acre ranch surrounded on three sides by the Colville National Forest, where he had his government grazing allotment. Highly respected, he was once the state chair of the Cattleman’s Association. He really lived his libertarian (small L) world view. He respected all who respected him and never fired the first shot. Jack fenced off his cattle from every stream, springs and even seasonal seeps. He deplored what he called “slob ranchers.” He would get giddy at sight of a big buck grazing his alfalfa. He knew the names and the calls of all the nearby bird species. For Jack and his Colville Native wife, Sunday Services meant a long ride in the saddle in the wilds of the Kettle Range adjacent to his ranch.

Of course, we had our good arguments about Public Lands, especially timber policy – we both in our youths had been timber workers – I in mills and Jack as a tree faller – so we had some great discussions on it. To this day, I’d much rather debate Timber Policy with industry workers than with DC enviros, politicians, bureaucrats and mill owners.

But two of the things we agreed on in addition to the fencing of water, slob ranchers, slob hunters, etc. are: 1) we’d much rather have the open spaces that ranches provide than Microsoft millionaire hobby ranchettes or other subdivisions and he always supported our right to keep our own nearby land adjacent to the national forest in a group-held preservation trust – as did Ron Arnold, another honorable opponent from the Wise Use Movement; and 2) We all agreed it’s also idiotic that our preservation land is property taxed, even though the land trust is a state non-profit, at a higher rate than grazed land.

Jack is not unique among small ranchers in my experience. I know a few who genuinely care about the land and wildlife and their animals (yeah, I know.) The same rich variety of bio-diversity exists on Jack’s old ranch as exists on the land trust. Jack would be appalled that these guys don’t believe they have to pay even the piddling amount of their lease.

Please. Would you ALL just go home?

Then there are all the opportunists circling around the Malheur Occupation.

Authorities, media, and professional “greens” have booked all the rooms in nearby Burns, OR. Some Oregon grassroots greens, like Don who took the photo, laudably went over and talked civilly with Bundy et al. about their views right at the beginning and reported back. But, now we are seeing the professional donation-mining big “greens” parachuting in, along with the inevitable “Donate NOW: Protect Public Lands” missives.

These self-anointed “strategists” held rallies (after two weeks had passed) across the state’s large cities, hundreds of miles safely away from the Refuge. They will soon be competing to see who can cut the Collaborative Grazing Agreement., right down to the restoration of the Hammonds four canceled allotments. Get ready for another collaborative “win-win. Dating back to 2014, some have been involved in negotiations between the BLM and the Hammonds over restoring four Grazing Leases that were lifted from the ranchers due to their history of serious past Eco-violations.

We have all sorts of press – mainstream, “left” and “right” – arriving, seeking and promoting their “exclusives,” some reproducing stuff (in that link to two decades old work in the second paragraph above) as if it was new info.

One thing Gov. Kate Brown finally got right is that it is time for it to end. Like I noted above: close it off, ferGaiasakes! Without supplies and the media circus, it will end in a heartbeat. They do have to stand trial for what they’ve done. The fact that the government let Bundy, Senior get away with what happened down in Nevada; not to mention, letting him continue to not pay $2 million he owes in Grazing Fees!, just fueled them further, as would letting them off on this one. I just don’t want to see any martyrs or rewarded opportunists come out of it. They may have wanted to go down as martyrs; but this way, they go down as “delusional” welfare ranchers.

Flint: The Long-time Canary on the Assembly Line for Pollution and Deindustrialization

Of course, the same opportunist/media/political circus is happening in Flint. I was just listening to NPR and every story for a half hour was either Flint or Malheur!

Take a Google Earth tour of Flint. As you zoom down on the Inner City, notice the many blocks with but one or two remaining houses and many of those are abandoned. Cruise up Martin Luther King Ave (Detroit Street when I was growing up) and see all the vacant slabs of cement where small neighborhood clusters of stores – drug stores, bakeries, barber shops, etc – once stood. Then hone in on the inner north-side Cook Elementary School I grew up by and take a street-view trip up or down Mason Street or any nearby street. Check out the giant brownfields along the Flint River where the massive Buick City and Chevy-in-the-Hole (site of the seminal Sit-Down Strike – a place where I once worked) factory complexes once stood.

Flint ex-pat, author Gordon Young wrote an excellent piece on  of how it’s nice to see our benighted hometown get some attention noting; where has everyone been for years while Flint devolved from the closest thing we’ve ever had in America to a Workers’ Utopia to Murdertown, USA.

Gordon reels off the salient facts: “But when a city of 200,000 loses 70,000 GM jobs and 100,000 residents, so-called “market forces” are not going to save it. Richard Florida-style efforts to lure the creative class are not going to work. Sorry, but art walks, however pleasant, will not offset all the abandoned and/or burning houses. Or the murders.”

Austerity Kills


Business District, my old Flint neighborhood. (My Photo)

So, how did a city of 100,000 come to have its water supply poisoned? I’ve stayed away from the obvious racial aspect of the Occupation, other than to note the difference with how the Feds handled Wounded Knee. But with Flint it’s hard to NOT note it, as it is a crucial part of it. Flint residents are but 37% white and very poor. As Young noted: “…Flint has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation—41.4 percent overall and 66.5 percent for children—so thousands of residents drinking poisoned water were already marginalized.”

It is inconceivable that a majority white, prosperous city this size would see this happen. The state has an Emergency Manager law that allows the current Tea Party/Koch Brother 1%er governor to appoint a Manager and strip all power away from elected city officials and give it to the manager who then carries out an Austerity Plan. Said plans always mean cutting services and worker pensions – in a broke city like Flint, there just are no other pots of money to tap: the most dangerous city in America lays off cops and firefighters and steals their pensions.

That not being enough pain, the Manager then decided to change water sources from Lake Huron glacial water bought from Detroit to tapping the Flint River, GM’s convenient industrial sewer for decades. The city changed from the river water we all drank growing up to Lake Huron water in 1967, after it was proven then to be toxic and the river now has recovered some due to the deindistrialization.

When I was a teen, Jimmy Johnson, his cousin Wally and I were goofing around and decided to cross the river on the girders under a Grand Trunk Railroad bridge (yes that’s where my rocker homeboys got their name Grand Funk Railroad). Wally slipped and one foot went into the river. Two days later his new Chuck Taylor Converse All Star shoe fell part. We used to ride out bikes down to the riverbank behind Chevy-in-the-Hole and watch regular acid dumps drain down a steel grate-covered cement trough directly into the river. We’d stick sticks thru the steel mesh and marvel as we pulled out nothing. It will takes decades for the river to fully recover, if ever.

So, despite warnings, past issues and all, the state imposed the switch. Then, after it became apparent that it was poison, the state stone-walled. Politicians reassured the public. Criminally, test documents were altered. In an appropriately named Watergate II, over the Holidays, the room where past Water Bureau records were kept was broken into – no one knows what rifled thru documents may be missing nor which ones may have been copied or altered.

The governor continues to stonewall, though he just asked for $28 million to help with water and lead test kits – so much for the $15 million in “savings” from the switchover. He did throw a couple of his underlings under a bus; but no real investigations have taken place. And, Gov. Rick Snyder, where the buck should stop is covered by an exemption to the Freedom of Information laws, so he has the ability to choose or not just what redacted e-mails, etc. to release.

The long silence on it all, the poisoning has been going on for close to two years from the Administration mirrors their silent wish that it would all go away at Malheur. The poisoning has been very clear ever since parents and heroic health care workers definitively exposed it a year ago!  The Bottom Line is 8000 children under the age of eight, the most vulnerable population out of the 100,000 poisoned, now face a lifetime of health complications, not to mention, huge medical bills the taxpayers will pick up the tab for. Ten people have also died from Legionnaire’s Disease, caused by a contaminated water-borne pathogen, and another 77 diagnosed with it in the outbreak.

I don’t want to go into it much, but it has also hit as close as it can get for my family: my six-week-old Flint-born great-nephew is fighting for his life in the Children’s Hospital, having been born with serious health issues. His mom tried mightily to not drink the Water and gave bottled water to her other two young children. But as you can see in the link on the heroes who exposed it, even washing in it was toxic – rashes and loss of clumps of hair being common. There’s no definitive link in my great-nephew’s case, but like the great fictional detective Lt Joe Leaphorn says, “There are no coincidences.”

(Right now I want to give a shout-out to two great Flintoids: Industrialist/Philanthropist/former Mayor C. S. Mott whose Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan has saved countless lives. And, my old teammate Herb Washington, once the fastest human on Earth and the famed Designated Runner for the Oakland A’s baseball team. Herb, who thrived as a major McDonald’s franchisee, has been on the board of the United Negro College Fund for years and has headed up the Ronald McDonald Charities Fund, which has helped out our family and thousands of others who have had children at risk in such hospitals.)

End Times for The Commons?

Without going into the Qui Bono? Ruling Class aspects of it all (somehow they must think they have an escape option), I can’t help but see both of these catastrophes as of the same cloth – the fabric of which is the plutocrats exploiting the fears of white, male America in the face of inexorable demographics – white working class males are losing the great numbers and gender/racial-preference advantages they once had, as the dependable family-wage jobs also disappear. Women, minorities, immigrants…are claiming rights denied before. Public Lands are no longer there for the connected insiders to exploit without regulation or concern for species’ rights or those of the 330 million owners of the lands.

There is more than whiff of Mormon End Times theocracy behind the Malheur Occupation; and in many ways white males, be they John Wayne wannabes or discarded urban working class, they all feel an Apocalypse has already arrived; one of lifestyle. The impacts of deindustrialization, species loss/protection and carbon pollution have hit them far harder than it has the urban liberals who fly the planet blithely spewing carbon as they seek to restrict the harmful lifestyles of others.

The Commons are closing off all over. Public Lands are America’s greatest gift to modern society. Racism is America’s original sin. Speciesism is us Clever Apes biggest disconnect. Not to go all “hocus, pocus” on you, as my recently-departed buddy John Trudell, would say; but as he also used to note, “We are all One.” What we do to the least of our own or any specie impacts us all. If we don’t fiercely fight for the Commons and come to our senses, we’ll see as we go down, what Gordon Young ended his piece with “Flint, coming to a city near you.” And, “Malheur, coming to the Life Support System near you.”

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at

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