With over 70 percent government-owned and -managed land, Harney County is no stranger to disputes between ranchers, federal wildlife employees, and environmentalists. In many ways, the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR) by Ammon Bundy and his followers was the culmination of years of conflict and seemingly nonstop litigation. However, that national news story obscured the more important local story of how people in Harney County have been working to successfully resolve conflicts through collaborations like the High Desert Partnership.
“We’re not thrilled that there are some big problems and the money gets shifted toward litigation,” says Brenda Smith, executive director of the partnership. “We could put these resources to better use.”
This sense that there are better ways to resolve problems was the impetus for the creation of the partnership in 2005. Initially, founding board members sought to bring together different interest groups to develop the MNWR’s fifteen-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The plan was developed without appeals or litigation and set the stage for a new way of doing business in the region.
Specifically, the partnership facilitates difficult conversations between community stakeholders and then helps them secure grant funding for projects that address both ecological and economic concerns.
In the thirteen years since its inception, the partnership has secured millions in funding and developed a variety of projects, including the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, Harney County Wildlife Collaborative, and the Harney County Restoration Collaborative.
Many community members welcome the change in approach, including longtime rancher and former county commissioner Dan Nichols. Nichols got involved with the partnership in its formative stages and says the emphasis on conversation has been particularly effective in bridging previously intractable differences.
“People basically want the same thing,” he says. “It’s just how you get there. It’s about people getting over their own beliefs and opinions, listening to others, putting self-interest aside, and doing ultimately what’s right.”
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