Looking past Malheur: America’s real public lands legacy

In remote Harney County, Oregon, life is slowly returning to normal as investigators sift through the evidence left by six weeks of intense standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One person is dead, more than a dozen have been arrested, and this sad chapter in the fight for the future of America’s public lands is nearly closed.

But the story is far from over.

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Unfortunately, America probably hasn’t seen the last of misguided extremists who believe they have the moral authority to take over public lands – lands that belong to every American.

As the Oregon perpetrators reflect on their actions while behind bars, others are working to use politics and the courts to reinterpret the law and undermine our national wildlife refuges, national forests and other cherished public lands.

As someone who spent nearly four decades managing public lands at the state and federal level, I don’t want to see this happen. I know first-hand how important public lands are to America’s character and prosperity.

It’s time for this story to be turned over to the millions of Americans who respectfully hike, bike, ski, camp, paddle, hunt, fish, mine, log and graze America’s public lands. It’s time to pull back the curtain on the disconnected myth that glorifies lawless “independence” and demonizes federal agencies and the public lands they manage for all of us.

It’s time, instead, to tell the story of the countless, common sense efforts that people are working on every day to solve the land management problems that we do face. It’s time for the many communities that are rolling up their sleeves and working collaboratively with land managers for the common good to take a leading role.

And it’s time to for politicians like Rep. Raul Labrador (R), from my home state of Idaho, to stop fanning the flames of the false narrative that Westerners are rising up en masse against our public lands and the public servants who manage them. Their argument – that lands managed by agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management should be turned over to the states or private hands – is built on shaky and frankly dishonest and selfish foundations.

The part of the story that Labrador and others intentionally leave out is that “transferring control” is a red herring meant to disguise a more greedy motive: wresting public lands from public hands and ultimately privatizing them for nonpublic uses. Once lands are transferred, states will be unable to afford the overwhelming management costs and the auctioning off of our public lands heritage will begin. 

The “land transfer” fairy tale ignores the reality of life in the West. Out here, it’s far more common to find people working together, from the ground up, to find solutions to problems on issues like wildfire, wildlife and water. By and large, communities are more likely to collaborate and find common ground on public lands issues because they know they share a common future.

We should expect the same of our leaders. We elect them on the basic premise that they will be statesmen, dedicated to working for the common good of both the country and their constituents, not instigators.

Rather than dishing out politically motivated tall tales that do nothing to serve the best interests of the nation or the many communities that depend on public lands, we’d be much better served if politicians worked together to pass common-sense reforms that would help agencies make land management decisions more efficiently. Rather than inciting discontent, our elected leaders should be working to find calmer waters so that all stakeholders can sit down to find solutions that sustain the legacy of America’s public lands and that benefit the rural communities dependent on them. 

The people in Harney County understand this. It’s one of the reasons they so desperately wanted the Malheur occupiers gone. The take-over of the refuge was neither emblematic of nor helpful for the local community.

Certainly, there are serious problems with America’s public lands system that need fixing. Overseeing national forests and BLM-managed lands for multiple uses is becoming increasingly complicated as America grows and changes.

It is my deepest hope as we work for a stronger future for rural communities and public lands, that we can see past the fables set forth by the Malheur rebels and the politicians egging them on to the deeper and truer story of America and its public lands – one of the greatest gifts our forefathers left to us, and one of the greatest we can leave for future generations.  

Caswell served as director of the Bureau of Land Management from 2007-09 during the George W. Bush administration. He also headed Idaho’s state Office of Species Conservation under Govs. Dirk Kempthorne, Jim RischJim RischOvernight Defense: Senate rejects new FBI surveillance powers | Brexit vote looms | Push for new military aid deal with Israel Senators push vote to condemn Russia's 'reckless actions' Overnight Finance: Senate taking up Puerto Rico bill this month | Dems attack SEC chief | House votes to limit IRS donor data MORE and Butch Otter.

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