I’m a lifelong Republican and a professional wildlife photographer. In recent years, I’ve twice had the pleasure of spending days at a time photographing inside Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. While there, I enjoyed the hospitality of the townspeople of Burns. So now, I’m troubled by the seizure of the refuge by Ammon Bundy and his band of armed miscreants.

There’s a reason why Malheur was one of the first wildlife refuges created by President Theodore Roosevelt over a century ago. It’s an amazing place. Scenic beauty alone would be a good reason to protect it from destruction. But scenery is not all there is to Malheur.

The Refuge provides vital habitat to bighorn sheep, elk, antelope, deer, porcupines, marmots, weasels, and uncountable numbers of smaller critters whose presence adds to the charm of the place… not to mention the food chain.

But the main reason Malheur was protected in the first place is its importance to migratory birds.

In every season, the refuge shelters a mind-boggling variety and number of birds, thousands of whom arrive in spring and stick around to nest and raise their young: golden and bald eagles, sandhill cranes, avocets, stilts, dowitchers, godwits, sandpipers, curlews, geese, warblers, larks, bluebirds, flycatchers, wrens, tanagers, sparrows, herons, egrets, buntings, swans, and every imaginable variety of duck.

This was not always the case. In the late 1800s, plume hunters supplying feathers for the hat industry decimated the egret population on Malheur Lake. That fact, along with the area’s broader importance for migratory birds, prompted Roosevelt in 1908 to give it permanent protection. 

Now, after 108 years, Bundy and others are trying to deny this refuge its protected status and strip ownership away from the American people. That’s you and me, folks.

But… what about our collective property rights? What kind of precedent would it set if we surrendered ownership of valuable places like Malheur to people like Bundy and his gang? Think of the impact on the millions of Americans who depend on our public lands for hiking, biking, birding, hunting, fishing, and, yes, wildlife photography.

Lost on radicals like Bundy is a very simple truth. There’s nothing more fundamentally conservative than conservation. President Roosevelt understood that, as do I and millions of other Americans. We appreciate that now—thanks to TR’s leadership—birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all sizes, ages, and political stripes can flock to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to experience its God-given natural wealth.

The current armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the unprincipled individuals behind it are examples of the worst extremism that exists in our nation. They have no right to claim for themselves this land—or any other piece of federally protected land—that is a birthright of each and every American citizen.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a very special place. It was worthy of protection in TR’s time, and it remains worthy of protection today.

I hope the Obama administration will uphold the law, protect Malheur, and protect the American people’s property rights from those who would trample on them.

Marks is board chair of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.