Time to speak out against elected officials who share goals with Oregon militants

For the last few days, headlines have been dominated by the tense situation in Burns, Oregon, where a number of armed protesters have taken over a wildlife refuge. But in all this coverage of Harney County, there’s been one notable absence—the number of western elected officials who greatly influence the debate over public lands, like House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who have remained pretty quiet on the topic.

That’s ironic, because the legislative goals of Bishop’s Federal Lands Action Group (FLAG) are very closely aligned with those of the armed militants who illegally took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The Bundy-led extremists are protesting federal overreach by suggesting public lands that belong to all Americans should be locked up and given back to states.  Bishop’s group is exploring options for “transferring public lands to local ownership and control.”

{mosads}Apart from the fact that public lands transfer is a hugely costly proposal, it’s also massively unpopular with the very Westerners these Congressmen purport to represent. In a recent poll, 68 percent of Westerners said they think of public lands as “American places that belong to the country as a whole.”

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Ida.)—also a member of Bishop’s FLAG group, as well as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee—recently sympathized not just with the ultimate goals of the armed extremists in Oregon, but went so far as to call their armed occupation of a federal building a legitimate form of “civil disobedience.”  Labrador is someone that the public has elected and trusted to manage our public resources, yet he’s doing the exact opposite: Defending the takeover of these very resources by extremists, whose action, ironically, restricts public access.

This is the just the latest sign that Washington is broken. Our elected officials are implicitly supporting conflict as a way to solve problems. Last week, Bishop made a statement saying that while he did not specifically condone the militants’ violence, he “fully understand[s] the frustration many Americans feel when dealing with federal land agencies.” In the past, Labrador supported Bishop as a candidate for the Speaker of the House, and they sit on all the same committees. It’s hard to believe that they feel differently about this topic.

It’s time for our elected officials from western states to stand up for the public and condemn this disturbing approach on our country’s public lands. It’s time for Labrador and Bishop to get in line with what a majority of Westerners already know: the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is unconstitutional, it’s unsafe, and it’s as unacceptable as handing over control of our country’s national public lands.  

Saeger is director of The Western Values Project.

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