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Looking ahead to protect our public lands

Posted by Chase Gunnell at Feb 12, 2016 08:55 PM |
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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 is now over. But the struggle to keep our public lands in public hands is far from finished.

Looking ahead to protect our public lands

Chase speaking at the "Public Lands For All Rally" that we organized in Seattle on January 19th, 2016. Photo: Les Walsh, National Wildlife Federation

Reflections on Malheur, America’s natural heritage, and those who would take it from us

By Chase Gunnell, Communications Director

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 the movement to seize our nation’s public lands is an assault on 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 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 cherish? Malheur may be empty of militants today, but that extreme and misguided campaign is not over.

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. 

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.

The senior Bundy, Cliven, 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 tranquility found in the area’s extraordinary public lands.

Public lands for all

National forests belong to all Americans.
National forests belong to all Americans.

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. I'm 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 backers 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 numerous studies 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.”

Editorial from the Seattle Times on Malheur, public lands, and "Public Lands for All" rallies we organized during the occupation. 

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.

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 307 million people visited national parks in 2015, a new record high, 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.

Fishing and hunting on BLM land in SE Washington
Fishing and hunting on BLM land in SE Washington

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 capita 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.

Want to help restore Malheur? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Natural Desert Association and other groups are looking for volunteers to help clean up the wildlife refuge and repair habitat damaged during the takeover. Click here to learn more from The Oregonian.

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 in forest 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.

Learn more about our work to protect our region’s public lands. Want to help us keep public lands in public hands? Sign up for our WILD NW action alert list. Or share your support on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtags #KeepItPublic and #ProtectPublicLands.

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