The below is a piece I wrote for Conservation Northwest’s website blog on Friday, February 12th. Republished here with a few more photos.
Reflections on Malheur, America’s natural heritage, and those who would take it from us
The seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed extremists demanding that the government hand over America’s public lands to local or private control has ended. But the struggle to keep our public lands in public hands is far from finished.
As a passionate hunter, angler, hiker and conservationist, at times it feels like the movement to seize our nation’s public lands is an assault on core elements of my identity. My parents and grandparents raised me with public dirt under my fingernails. Some of my earliest memories include fishing for salmon on rivers flowing out of the Cascades, gathering mushrooms in Olympic National Forest, and hunting pheasants on wildlife areas across Eastern Washington.
Wild places provided me with joy and solace during a rocky adolescence. In college and soon after public mountains and forests were the source of adrenaline rushes, powder days and icy summits, and more importantly the strength, confidence and camaraderie that no other classroom can teach. Today, I still find those things and more when I visit the natural heritage that all Americans have been endowed with. And I go there often to feel not apart from the natural world, but a part of it.
What then is someone like me to make of those who have recently seized a piece of our public endowment? And what of the larger movement behind the Oregon Standoff, one that’s well-organized and well-funded with the aim of taking for private benefit the public lands that I and so many others have relied on? Malheur may be empty of militants today, but that extreme and misguided campaign is not over.
Your’s truly speaking at the “Public Lands For All Rally” in Seattle on January 19th, 2016. Photo: Les Walsh, National Wildlife Federation
Law enforcement deserve praise
After a dramatic and sometimes bizarre dialogue that was live-broadcast to over 60,000 listeners, the four remaining holdouts surrendered to law enforcement officials at approximately 11:00 a.m. yesterday. A federal grand jury previously indicted 16 others involved, including the group’s de facto leader Ammon Bundy, an Arizona businessman and son of notorious rancher Cliven Bundy. No one was injured, and no shots were fired Thursday morning. It was the 41st day of the refuge takeover.
The senior Bundy was also arrested on Thursday at Portland International Airport while en route to the wildlife refuge. He faces a list of charges related to the 2014 standoff at his Nevada ranch, including assault on a federal officer, firearms crimes, obstruction of justice, extortion, and conspiracy. Cliven also owes the Bureau of Land Management, and thereby U.S. taxpayers, over $1 million in unpaid public lands grazing fees.
This relatively peaceful end to a prolonged and bitter episode is a testament to the efficacy and patience of federal law enforcement agents and Oregon State Police, as well as that of Harney County Sheriff David Ward. Those involved in bringing this incident to a close and protecting our public lands should be commended.
Sheriff Ward, a native of eastern Oregon and a veteran who served in Somalia and Afghanistan, emerged as a particularly inspiring figure during the standoff. Ward, known around Harney County as “Sheriff Dave,” worked to resolve the conflict without further bloodshed, holding dialogues with militants, local residents and government officials while standing tall as a voice of reason and order among a community in strife.
With emotion in his voice as he spoke to the media after leaders of the refuge takeover were arrested in late January, Sheriff Ward said: “If we have issues with the way things are going in our government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on them in an appropriate manner. We don’t arm up and rebel. … This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America. And it can’t happen in Harney County.”
I sincerely hope that other would-be militants hear the sheriff’s pleas for dialogue and unity. And that he and other law enforcement officers involved, as well as local residents impacted including the Burns Paiute Tribe, can now find some peace and rest with family and friends. Perhaps even by enjoying the great tranquility found in the area’s extraordinary public lands.
Our public lands, including national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management deserts and grasslands, and national forests, like this fishing spot on the Okanogan-Wenatchee, belong to all Americans. With collaboration, compromise and respectful dialogue, we can manage them in a way that sustainably benefits all users as well as future generations.
Public lands for all
In discussing the formation of the U.S. Forest Service, President Roosevelt famously said: “the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration.”
The extremists who took over Malheur used armed intimidation to pursue the “transfer” of public lands for private gain and personal redress. We are pleased that they are being brought to justice and for now are prevented from further efforts to steal from our natural heritage. However, like the “Sagebrush Rebellion” before them, their land grab crusade is far from exhausted.
Backed by groups like the American Lands Council and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and shadowy billionaire donors including the Koch Brothers, the Malheur debacle was just one skirmish in a bigger conflict. Even in Washington state we’ve seen attempts by some elected officials to study the “transfer” of our public lands. The desire of all these groups? To handover America’s forests, deserts, wildlife refuges and other public lands to state or county control. And then when these local entities cannot afford to manage such lands, as numerousstudies show would certainly be the case, have them sold off to private corporations for unrestricted logging, fracking and mining or to be bought up as playgrounds for the very rich.
If they have their way, the tagline of our public lands will shift from “This Land is Your Land” to “No Trespassing.”
Let there be no doubt, there is zero constitutional or legal basis for extremist claims denouncing America’s public lands. There is however a loud sentiment among some that environmental regulations governing grazing and logging are driving the economic woes of rural communities. I, and Conservation Northwest, recognize that some citizens and certain public land users may feel hemmed in by government bureaucracy. Or even by the actions of conservation groups.
While environmental regulations are a fundamental necessity for ensuring that current and future generations can use these lands for both extractive and non-extractive purposes, Conservation Northwest is an organization that engages in open dialogue and genuine listening to find common ground and collaboratively reach solutions to challenging issues. “Us vs. Them” mentalities and “Green vs. Brown” culture wars do no one any good, least of all our wildlife and wildlands. In crafting local solutions, we also think it is crucial to understand the larger economic changes that make it harder for people in rural communities to make a living, such as consolidation of the meat processing industry and regional and global shifts in timber production.
Interestingly, Malheur itself is one such collaborative success story. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established on August 18, 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt. Unclaimed government lands in the area were set aside “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” Land was added to the refuge over the years through purchases from willing landowners. With enduring partnerships between refuge staff, state and federal agencies, local farmers and ranchers, and other stakeholders including birders and hunters, Malheur became “known for listening,” a model for successful collaboration on America’s public lands; a point apparently lost on those who seized the refuge to advance their land grab agenda.
Your truly smiling after the sun broke out on morning three of a backcountry mule deer hunt on national forest lands. It had snowed heavily the previous two days, and our exit was the steep gully behind me. Hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and outdoor recreation directly contribute to 6.1 million jobs a year and $646 billion in consumer spending nationwide, hugely benefiting local economies and rural communities. These activities depend on protected and accessible public lands.
Keeping public lands in public hands
Public lands managed by the federal government for all Americans not only protect our history, wildlife habitat, and natural beauty, but they draw visitors from across the country and around the world. More than 292 million people visited national parks last year, and even more hiked, camped, fished, watched wildlife, and enjoyed other public lands like national forests and wildlife refuges. These places are vital to millions of small businesses in nearby communities, and an important part of our nation’s economy.
And despite the extremists who spent the last 41 days grabbing headlines, bi-partisan polling has consistently shown broad public support for federal ownership of public lands. What’s more, many ranchers and other commercial users of public lands recognize that their fees for utilizing public lands are a fraction of what they’d likely pay to conduct the same for-profit activity on private property. The ranchers I’ve had the pleasure of working with also recognize that responsible management of public rangelands is key to their industry and their way of life.
Studies have also shown that “rural counties in the West with the most federal lands did better economically than other counties. Those counties saw faster growth in population, employment, personal income, and per capital income growth.” The outdoor recreation industry alone generates “6.1 million jobs a year and $646 billion in consumer spending nationwide.” In Washington state nearly 200,000 jobs are supported directly or indirectly by outdoor recreation, more than our state’s technology or aerospace industries. Extremist propaganda may try to make some residents believe otherwise, but public lands are undeniably good for local communities and economies.
Protected and connected public lands are at the core of Conservation Northwest’s mission. And we firmly believe that public lands are the birthright of all Americans. They’re vital habitat for fish and wildlife, and give all of us, rich or poor, urban or rural, the opportunity to hike, ski, climb, fish, hunt and much more. As conservationist John Muir put it, these are places to find “beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
Public forestlands are also the source of most of America’s drinking water and store vast amounts of carbon to stabilize our climate. And when we share and manage them according to thoughtful stewardship and the rule of law, public lands provide the resources for sustainable forestry, livestock grazing and other commercial uses.
Our national parks, wildlife refuges, forests and other public lands belong to all of us, including school children in Seattle, ranchers in Nevada, birders in Portland, hikers in Omak and lumber mill workers in Colville. When I fish, hike or hunt on public lands, I cherish the fact that this land is truly MY land. And that I get to share it with my fellow Americans. Public lands belong to and benefit all of us. And from petitioning the media and elected leaders to holding rallies and continuing to work with diverse stakeholders inforest collaboratives and on conflict transformation around wildlife management, Conservation Northwest will continue working tirelessly to keep it that way.
That oft-quoted founding father of conservation Teddy Roosevelt said one more thing that’s worth dwelling on today: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
Over 100 years later we still face threats to our country’s natural wonders. But in the face of these new threats let it be known that we have not forgotten Roosevelt’s warning. And to those who would try to steal our sacred heritage for their private gain: we will not let you.
Steelhead fly fishing in southeast Washington. The left bank is a wildlife area, the right is BLM land. Just downstream are plenty of ‘No Trespassing’ signs on a private ranch. The American West has more than enough of those signs already.