Rancher, democratic governor come together for the good of the land
Curtis Martin and Governor John Kitzhaber didn’t start out as friends.
But today that’s many dialogues about water – as well as salmon, irrigation and cows – under the bridge.
The conservative eastern Oregon rancher and the liberal former governor don’t exactly synchronize politically – but in the process of agreeing to disagree over the past 30 years, they have created a model worth noting.
Martin was born and raised a ranch kid in the high deserts of Eastern Oregon. In the early ’80s he and his wife had just branched out from her family ranch and purchased their own place near North Powder, Oregon. Two years later land values crashed. Their ranch was worth half what they paid and they weren’t sure how to buy groceries to feed their four boys under the age of 6. “If we were smarter we may have given up, but we didn’t know any better, so we kept on struggling through ’til we made it,” Martin says. Their grit carried them on to build a successful operation later involving all four sons.
While Martin was raising kids, cattle and irrigated hay, in the opposite corner of the state in the small, rural logging community of Roseburg a freshly-minted medical doctor was caring for the area’s blue collar workers in the ER. John Kitzhaber came there for the river, and stayed for the solid community of logging families and sheep ranchers who became his best friends. “We would fish together some days, and some days I would sew them up,” he says. A progressive Democrat, he first ran for public office in 1978 and was elected to the state legislature and later the senate, representing a city that today has twice the number of registered Republicans as Democrats.
“When I first ran for office I learned that at some level, everyone wants the same things – good jobs to support their families, hard work to be rewarded, safe secure communities where people care for one another, and to live in a clean environment,” says Kitzhaber. “Once you get to know people as people beyond the political positions, something magic happens.”
In 1994 when the incumbent governor opted out, Kitzhaber threw his hat in the ring. He was elected and went on to serve what would be three full terms as governor of Oregon.
As the ’90s dawned in Oregon, the political climate began heating up in a state that had leaned left for more than 35 years. Topics such as the spotted owl, salmon, hydroelectric dams and water adjudication pitted the western cities against the rural eastern population. Ranchers like Martin felt under attack. “There was an extremist movement that spurred the idea that any kind of human element out here is wrong and should be corrected, and that water left in stream was more valuable than growing crops and food,” says Martin. The new governor was lending an ear to the enviro movement at the time “and when I sensed fish were getting more priority than ranchers, that’s when my political involvement began.”
Martin became involved with the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and was soon the chairman of his local water management board. “Opening your mouth too many times gets you on too many committees,” says Martin with a laugh. “But it was very alarming. For all of us in ag water is our life. If you take away our ability to manage and use water, you have eradicated what we do.
“The rural/urban divide was becoming more and more apparent, and when you first get involved you have a natural tendency to think, ‘They’re just out to get us,’” he says. “It angers you first, and then fear enters into that and our human nature is to erect fences and barriers and stand firm against ‘them.’”
As he carried his sharp-edged sword to Salem, ready to do battle for his water and his land and his rights, Martin says he began to change. He recognized that truly, no one owns the water, and the people he was going to war against had a legitimate perception – right or wrong – of what was being done to their water. As a rancher he has a legitimate concern to care for the water. But neither side was stopping long enough to listen. “It was simply an ‘if you touch my water I’m going to knock your head off’ situation.”
Meanwhile down in Roseburg, Kitzhaber had seen the 1990 decision to list the spotted owl as endangered decimate his logging community. Unemployment in his district was at 19 percent. He began to see proud, hardworking people no longer able to put food on the table, substance abuse skyrocket and families began to break down. “I saw that often in the way we frame debates we create a zero sum situation. You tell a logger he has the choice of either feeding his family or protecting an owl he’s never seen before – it’s a no brainer.”
The charged animosity in Oregon grew through the ’90s and spilled over into the new millennium.
In 2001 Kitzhaber was at the helm as governor when the Klamath Basin Water Conflict gained national attention. As a standoff ensued between farmers whose livelihoods depended on irrigation and the federal agents who welded shut the headgates on the dam, following orders to protect the salmon remaining in the drought-stricken river, Kitzhaber went to the area to host a public forum with the county commissioners. When he arrived he was handed a bulletproof vest.
“People were spitting on our car, rocking it back and forth,” he says. Someone yelled from the stage for him to take his cowboy boots off – he wasn’t worthy of wearing them. “It was sort of terrifying but really sad,” Kitzhaber says. “The community and region were just ripped apart.”
As Martin’s advocacy increased, including serving as president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, he would occasionally cross paths with Governor Kitzhaber. “We couldn’t be at further ends of the political spectrum,” Martin says. But he recognized in the governor a common respect for opposing views and a willingness to learn.
Into the late 2000s, Martin felt the tensions begin to decrease – the ag community was gaining some traction with policy makers. “We were being asked our opinion on multiple resource issues; we weren’t simply portrayed as the cause of the problem, but as part of the solution.”
In 2012 what had evolved from political tensions to mutual respect between Martin and Kitzhaber changed to friendship in the face of adversity.
A July 8 a lightning strike ignited the Long Draw fire, the largest Oregon wildfire in more than 100 years, burning 550,000 acres in the southeast corner of the state overnight. Cattle died and ranches were decimated. Martin was president of the OCA at the time.
“I was sitting on the baler making hay that afternoon and I get a call.” It was the Governor on his personal cell phone. He wanted to know what he could do to help.
“In that area there’s no population to be playing to as far as votes. It dawned on me he really cares about rural Oregon,” Martin says.
Martin went through the OCA agenda items of relocating cattle, finding new grazing and requesting emergency funds – but was left strongly moved by the concern.
“That pretty much wins your heart when someone does something like that for your people. I realized our misconception of others is such a barrier and this created a real level of trust.”
They still hold true to their political diversity, but Martin and Kitzhaber say their friendship is unique. “I don’t think the Oregon Cattlemen ever once endorsed me – but I get together with Curtis and we can still have a good time,” says Kitzhaber.
Each emphasizes that communication and respect of others drives progress in both advocacy and public service. Creating an environment of animosity simply fuels an “us against them” mentality and forces people into a place where they get radicalized.
Kitzhaber tells of a time he was involved in a discussion involving the Elliott State Forest. Environmental activist groups had successfully gotten an injunction in the area against logging, which sustains the nearby town of Coos Bay.
“There was this young attorney talking about taking his daughter into the Elliott forest and what a spiritual experience it was,” Kitzhaber says. “I told him, ‘I took my son to a similar place one time – I understand, and your story is beautiful. But you left something out. We have children whose parents are living 15 miles from here who are unemployed. There are families living in three generations of poverty nearby and they don’t know hope. You cannot preserve a special place and simply ignore the human element,” he says.
During his time in public service, Kitzhaber emphasized the need to meet, to discuss, and to look for solutions, not problems. During his third term as governor he was able to witness an agreement signed regarding the Klamath Basin. “Some of those people who were in that front row yelling at me in 2001, were there at the signing, moving forward together” he says. “The real power of a governor is the authority to convene people, to give them an outlet for discussion. We moved past the hatred.”
Since leaving office Kitzhaber continues to engage leaders in the environmental sphere and the natural resources community to meet and discuss issues. Martin continues to ranch and to advocate for the agricultural industry.
Both agree there’s never been a time of political contentions in the U.S. as damaging as that of today’s society – and that red and blue labels, social media and political divisiveness are creating an atmosphere that only fuels the fire.
“There needs to be some realization that even though we have different political beliefs, there is some common ground,” says Martin. “The alarming amount of vitriol even within our own business is harmful.”
In the end, we are all richer for learning about an opinion different than ours.
“At the end of the day, life is all about relationship,” says Kitzhaber. “Get to know people and understand their values – there is a huge area for solving problems and eliminating polarization.
“Partisanship is a choice and so is civility.”
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