Energy & Environment at The Hill

From Oregon to the Beltway, radicals target public lands legacy

If you’ve never experienced the airborne power of 300,000 migrating snow geese roaring to flight over your head, you have missed one of the great natural spectacles of North America. A great place to see it is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. 

Before a mob of armed, delusional bullies led by Ammon Bundy took over the visitor center earlier this month, that avian phenomenon was the most remarkable thing about the Malheur NWR.

{mosads}But a band of extremists got more publicity than a flock of geese could ever hope for.  According to the Bundy Buddies, the Malheur NWR is unconstitutional, the very symbol of “tyranny.” The Bundy Buddies have promised to occupy the refuge visitor center until the refuge’s 180,000 acres are wrest from the control of their current owners, the American people. They are settling in for what could be a long, cold winter. 

Make no mistake: the Bundy clan is one arm of a political monster that wants to grab and demolish America’s legacy of public lands. This “land transfer” movement isn’t all hicks in felt hats, spewing legal nonsense and toting granddad’s horse pistol. It includes lobbyists and attorneys with polished boots and fat wallets, working diligently from western capitals to Washington D.C.  

Like the old song says: Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.

Today, they are aiming at a remote National Wildlife Refuge. Tomorrow, it will be your favorite national forest campground, fishing stream or hunting spot. Who knows where they will stop:  Yellowstone and Grand Canyon are on their maps.  

A bit of context is helpful in understanding Malheur. Back in 1908, the passenger pigeon and the Eskimo curlew were on their way to extinction because of market hunting and habitat destruction. Tasty game birds around North America were in line to follow them into oblivion. 

President Theodore Roosevelt, bird-watcher, hunter and amateur scientist, knew that America’s migratory waterfowl didn’t stand a chance without laws regulating the killing and protecting habitat on their migratory routes. So in 1908, he protected key habitats, including Malheur. 

Today, tens of thousands of visitors visit Malheur’s 180,000 acres annually. (I mean human visitors; migrating birds visit by the million). People come to hunt pheasants or ducks, or just to marvel at the swarms of migrating waterfowl.  Trust me, that phenomenon is just as breath-taking as a grizzly feeding on a slope of Glacier National Park or a bison feeding amid the steaming geysers of Yellowstone. 

 But by Bundy’s reading of history, Roosevelt is the villain.  His bizarre reading of the Constitution has no place for curbing our culture’s appetite for natural resources, or stopping our relentless push toward extinction. 

Bundy is a rube, whose minutes of fame will soon expire. The scary thing is how some people in far more powerful and sophisticated political circles are striving for the same goal: dismantling America’s public estate. 

While Republican political candidates have been leery of being seen as too friendly with Bundy’s latest anti-fed standoff, they have been warming up to the ideas that Bundy is peddling.

According The Hill: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) lent some credit to the stated goals of the occupation. 

“I agree that there is too much federal control over land, especially out in the western part of the United States. There are states, for example, like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of land holding, and we should fix it,” Rubio said, adding that it shouldn’t be done “in a way that is outside the law.”

Meanwhile in The Hill, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Ida.) labeled the occupation “civil disobedience.” Labrador has evidently forgotten the difference between civil disobedience and sedition. Hint: Participants in civil disobedience don’t arm themselves, hole up in a basement, and dare the cops to come get them. They protest peacefully, even to the point of being arrested and imprisoned. You don’t see pictures of Thoreau, Gandhi and Parks brandishing guns or offering sound bites that include phrases like “kill or be killed.”

Americans need to watch out. This feud isn’t about westerners holding a grudge against an insensitive bureaucracy. It isn’t about property rights, regulations or federal grazing fees.

This dispute is about the future of America’s public lands legacy, from one small wildlife refuge in Oregon to Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite, or the entire national forest system. And the Bundy Boys are just bit players.

Long has written about natural resource issues and worked to conserve America’s natural resources for more than 25 years. He lives in Kalispell, Mont., and is senior program director for Resource Media.

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