Why You Should Care about Protecting Federal Lands: A Response to the Oregon Standoff

Together we can mitigate the exploitation of our wild places.

By: Imogene Davis
October 28, 2016

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The country felt a collective shock yesterday as the Oregon Standoff leaders were acquitted of all charges. The ramifications of this ruling are long and complex, but here I will focus my anger on how this impacts the environment. As an outdoor enthusiast and supporter of multi-faceted land management (case in point: I am currently wearing a sweater that reads “The Wild is Calling”), I want to shed light on the danger this has created for our wild places, and why it matters to ALL of us.

Appreciating Lassen National Forest. Photo by Imogene Davis

For a detailed recap of the takeover, see here. To summarize: armed citizens seized the headquarters of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 2, 2016, and occupied the property until February 11th. During this time, militants destroyed federal property, federal land, and threatened local and federal police. The occupation sought to force federal agencies to turn over federal lands to individual states, primarily with regards to private use and grazing rights for ranchers.

Across the US, land has been set aside and managed by the federal government in the interest of maintaining and conserving American citizens' publicly owned resources. While some of these areas focus on only one activity or ecological service, many are designated as multiple use, where we as citizens can both enjoy wildlife as well as use our natural resources without exploiting the environment. This is important both for contemporary as well as future use and conservation, because it limits one group from overusing specific resources. While managed by the government, federal land in the US is NOT privately or corporately owned, and citizens have access to most of these places because we own them. This includes National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, Bureau of Land Management land, and National Wildlife Refuges.

Why does this matter? Well, for starters, the organizers of the Oregon refuge standoff demanded that federal land be returned to the states to better manage for private use. This is both misguided and impossible, as federal land does not belong to states. For example, the National Wildlife Refuge System was created specifically to connect habitat across the US for wildlife as well as protect native, migrating, and sensitive species. The National Wildlife Refuge is FOR wildlife, but many refuges allow hunting, fishing, wildlife photography and observation, and hiking. Likewise, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties also allow multiple use, including grazing leases for ranchers. The idea is that by protecting wildlife and effectively managing our public resources, we increase the quality of human life by promoting ecosystem services like clean air and water.

Cattle use national lands, too. Photo by Imogene Davis

For the armed militia in Oregon, they claim that their land was stolen by the government. While it is true that grazing on public domain rangelands was an established use of forest reserves through the 1890's, this changed in the early 1900's when the Forest Service established grazing fees in an effort to protect the soil, vegetation, and water that was severely damaged by decades of unregulated grazing. In short, we started limiting grazing in an effort to protect wild places, and we currently regulate this through permits and land leases to ranchers. Thus, when a private citizen violates the terms of a grazing lease, or refuses to pay permit fees, or sneaks into a national park, or seizes a government building at a national wildlife refuge, he or she is privatizing publicly owned resources. When these activities continue unfettered, we damage habitat, impact wildlife, and reduce the intrinsic value of our wild places.

The militia in the Oregon standoff damaged Malheur National Wildlife Refuge- they created new roads on the refuge, set back the carp (and invasive species of fish) management system by several years, and defecated near artifacts of the Burns Paiute Indian Tribe when the refuge pipe system broke. This is a gross abuse of federally managed land- land that you and I own, and all in the name of a distributing federal property into the hands of private ranchers for grazing rights. The Bundy family, some of the takeover's main organizers, have a long history with exploiting our public lands, which includes illegal grazing for decades as well as charges of arson on BLM property. Their acquittal yesterday sets all sorts of precedents for domestic terrorism, but it has also firmly established that the wild places in our country take a back seat to private interests that would unreasonably exploit our natural resources.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of state vs. federal government, this ruling could have an enormous impact on federally protected land, and yours and future generations' use and enjoyment of these beautiful places. With some political representatives calling for federal land to be allocated to the states, we don’t want to risk opening up national lands to commercial interests, overgrazing, and overhunting. Most states do a superb job managing wildlife areas and natural resources, but the distinction of federally managed land plays an equally important role in natural resource conservation because it consistently manages multiple use across the country. Federal land manages the vast array of competing interests for natural resources, which mitigates overuse of any one resource or area. Because federal natural resource management is about cooperating individually for the mutual benefit of all, privatizing federal land will return us to the days before the Land Ethic was born, where we ignored that land is a community regardless of state lines or contemporary interest, and our ecological communities suffered as a result (to explore this more, I highly recommend The Sand County Almanac).

National land enables moments like these. Photo by Imogene Davis

As a wildlife biologist and citizen, I am outraged at this ruling, as the occupation was both an act of armed terrorism as well as severe abuse of a national wildlife refuge in the name of personal gain. We should ALL have access to federal land, as conservation efforts include managing diverse values for the environment. No one use, whether it is for hunting, timber, wildlife management, habitat restoration, hiking, camping, boating, photography, or cattle grazing has priority. However, it is of utmost importance that these uses do not drain any one resource or ecological function, or inhibit the success of another. Maintaining our relationship with wild places involves sustainable use, respect, and collaboration with people as well as institutions, regardless of why you value the environment. I want to continue visiting wild places and log adventures for the future without having to worry that these spaces will disappear because of armed militia or overexploitation.

Unfortunately, this ruling almost guarantees that a similar event will occur again. You and I can minimize this likelihood, however, by promoting ethical use of wild places, supporting conservation and management efforts at all levels, and discouraging those who bend or break the law on public land. By saturating our community with positive relationships between people and federal lands, as you do so well here at The Outbound, we create stable ecosystems now and into the future. 

Cover photo: Beth Young

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.