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 OregonStandoff leaders were acquitted of all charges. The ramifications of thisruling are long and complex, but here I will focus my anger on how this impactsthe environment. As an outdoor enthusiast and supporter of multi-faceted landmanagement (case in point: I am currently wearing a sweater that reads “TheWild is Calling”), I want to shed light on thedanger this has created for our wild places, and why it matters to ALL ofus.

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 propertyuntil February 11th. During this time, militants destroyed federal property,federal land, and threatened local and federal police. The occupationsought to force federal agencies to turn over federal lands to individualstates, primarily with regards to private use and grazing rights for ranchers.

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

Why doesthis matter? Well, for starters, the organizers of the Oregon refuge standoffdemanded that federal land be returned to the states to better manage forprivate use. This is both misguided and impossible, as federal land does notbelong to states. For example, the NationalWildlife Refuge System was created specifically to connect habitat acrossthe US for wildlife as well as protect native, migrating, and sensitivespecies. The National Wildlife Refuge is FOR wildlife, but many refuges allowhunting, fishing, wildlife photography and observation, and hiking.Likewise, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) propertiesalso allow multiple use, including grazing leases for ranchers. The ideais that by protecting wildlife and effectively managing our publicresources, we increase the quality of human life by promoting ecosystemservices 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 wasstolen by the government. While it is true that grazing on public domainrangelands was an established use of forest reserves through the 1890's, thischanged in the early 1900's when the Forest Service established grazing fees in an effort to protect the soil, vegetation, and water thatwas severely damaged by decades of unregulated grazing. In short, westarted limiting grazing in an effort to protect wild places, and we currentlyregulate this through permits and land leases to ranchers. Thus, whena private citizen violates the terms of a grazing lease, or refuses to paypermit fees, or sneaks into a national park, or seizes a government building ata national wildlife refuge, he or she is privatizing publicly ownedresources. When these activities continue unfettered, we damage habitat, impactwildlife, and reduce the intrinsic value of our wild places.

The militia in the Oregon standoff damaged Malheur NationalWildlife 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 grossabuse of federally managed land- land that you and I own, and all in the nameof a distributing federal property into the hands of private ranchers forgrazing rights. The Bundy family, some of the takeover's main organizers, havea long history with exploiting our public lands, which includes illegal grazingfor decades as well as charges of arson on BLM property. Their acquittalyesterday sets all sorts of precedents for domestic terrorism, but it hasalso firmly established that the wild places in our country take a back seat toprivate interests that would unreasonably exploit our natural resources.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of state vs. federalgovernment, this ruling could have an enormous impact on federallyprotected land, and yours and future generations' use and enjoyment of these beautifulplaces. With some political representatives calling for federal land to beallocated to the states, we don’t want to risk opening up national lands tocommercial interests, overgrazing, and overhunting. Most states do a superb jobmanaging wildlife areas and natural resources, but the distinction offederally managed land plays an equally important role in natural resourceconservation because it consistently manages multiple use across the country. Federalland manages the vast array of competing interests for natural resources, whichmitigates overuse of any one resource or area. Because federal naturalresource management is about cooperating individually for the mutual benefit ofall, privatizing federal land willreturn us to the days before the Land Ethic wasborn, where we ignored that land is a community regardless of state lines orcontemporary interest, and our ecological communities suffered as a result (toexplore 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 thisruling, as the occupation was both an act of armed terrorism as well as severeabuse of a national wildlife refuge in the name of personal gain. We should ALLhave access to federal land, as conservation efforts include managing diversevalues 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 theseuses do not drain any one resource or ecological function, or inhibit thesuccess of another. Maintaining our relationship with wild places involvessustainable use, respect, and collaboration with people as well asinstitutions, regardless of why you value the environment. I want to continue visitingwild places and log adventures for the future without having to worry thatthese spaces will disappear because of armed militia or overexploitation.

Unfortunately, this ruling almost guarantees that a similarevent will occur again. You and I can minimize this likelihood, however, bypromoting ethical use of wild places, supporting conservation and managementefforts at all levels, and discouraging those who bend or break the law onpublic land. By saturating our community with positive relationships betweenpeople and federal lands, as you do so well here at The Outbound, we createstable 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.