When the meanings of a place collide

How can we use land better, more equitably, with greater care of the environment? These are urgent questions of our time. The difficulty is that land is often subject to widely diverging ideas as to its current or future significance, or place-meaning. A CDE-led study on a nature reserve in the US state of Oregon demonstrates how land use, power, and place claims interact and shape socio-ecological developments over the long term.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Sagebrush Sea, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA. Photo: shutterstock.com / William T. Smith

Micah Ingalls, Gaby Allheilig

Sometimes a name says it almost all: Malheur, French for “misfortune”. The name given to a county and a river in the US state of Oregon, according to legend, by French trappers and traders who were attacked by Native Americans while hunting for furs. But what does this place mean to different people today? Recent events in the area have raised questions on how place-meanings are formed and fought over – and what this means for sustainable development.


On 2 January 2016, armed cattle ranchers, led by a member of an anti-government militia movement, occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They demanded the federal Government return the land to the ranchers, who had run cattle on it since 1872, before President Roosevelt declared it a nature reserve in 1908. Counter-claims soon emerged. The Native American Paiute tribe – driven out during America’s westward movement during the 19th century – pointed out that their ancestral lands lay within the refuge, while environmentalists across the US claimed that public lands should be devoted to conservation.

The standoff sent shockwaves around the US, ending after 41 days in a violent confrontation between the armed occupiers and the police. The leaders were initially arrested before being acquitted of the charges brought against them.

Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2016

Grazing land, ancestral home, or wilderness?

Contest over Malheur’s status as a nature reserve had simmered for more than a century. The 2016 conflict brought to the fore the contradictory meanings of the place: For the cattle ranchers it was their rightful grazing land, for the Paiute their ancestral home, for the US government and conservationists it was a public good and a paradise for migratory birds – and for a large part of American society it was one of the last bastions of the highly mythologized American wilderness.

Sage grouse hens in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: shutterstock.com / William T Smith
An American avocet with four chicks in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Barbara Wheeler, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Looking backward in time and outward in space 

The uprising demonstrated that diverging territorial claims are often rooted in deep histories and very non-local processes. The conflict of 2016 had been long in the making and included processes that originated far beyond Malheur: the American push to the west and occupation of land by settlers, ranchers, and timbermen, as well as the enclosure of land resulting from decisions taken in Washington. Even the leaders of the 2016 revolt were not local cattle ranchers, but known anti-federal activists from Nevada who had brought their grievances and their guns to Malheur. 

Members of the Native American Paiute Tribe.

Access, use, and distribution of resources

But what does the complex spatial and temporal history of Malheur have to do with the transformation to sustainable development? First, it shows that the different meanings of a place can lead to divergent, often conflicting, territorial claims that can flare up at a moment’s notice. It is quite possible that the role of a place – a nature reserve, in this case – is taken for granted and remains uncontested for many years. But even a solution that appears commonsensical may suddenly come under threat.

Aerial view of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: shutterstock.com / Russ Heinl

A closer look therefore raises the questions of how, and by whom, the meaning of a place is defined, what consequences this has for its use, how the place should be managed, and with what intention. The social meanings that a place acquires are also reflected in ownership of, access or use rights to, and the distribution of resources.

Disputes can offer new opportunities

Disputes over place claims, as in Malheur, can erupt into open conflict. While often destructive, conflict can also be creative, providing the opportunity to unearth old claims – in this case, by the Paiute and traditional cattle ranchers – and revise assumptions that seemed secure. In the best case, such disputes can lead to the negotiation of innovative solutions for sustainable transformation.

In the search for the most viable and equitable systems possible for the present and the future, it is therefore necessary to take a close look at what a place might mean, and who claims what rights to it.

A critical look at the role of science

This is a task not only for the state and society – but also for science. However, scientific evidence will have little impact if it fails to grapple with social meanings and the landscapes of power within which these meanings are formed. Science must critically examine the meanings it ascribes to places and the role these meanings play in the conflicts that produce, legitimate, or erase the claims of others.

When places collide: Power, conflict and meaning at Malheur

Ingalls M, Kohout A, Stedman RC, 2019, in: Sustainability Science