The takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, led by the sons of rancher Cliven Bundy, involves a tangled web of issues, but a variety of important political lessons are beginning to emerge.
1. Some ranchers think they have a right to degrade public lands. Cliven Bundy first commandeered the media spotlight by refusing to pay huge sums of grazing fees he owed to the federal government accrued over decades of nonpayment, and by trespassing his cattle on public lands closed to grazing to protect the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. The armed standoff that ensued outside Mesquite, Nev. is still an unresolved open case.
In Oregon, Steve and Dwight Hammond were imprisoned for twice setting fires on federal lands (one was apparently set to cover up a poaching crime scene). But a decade earlier, these same two ranchers hit the public spotlight when they cut fences and threatened federal officials at Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge. Their "worthy cause"? Preventing federal officials from protecting sensitive wetlands on the refuge.
These two parallel grazing violations spotlight a broader problem cropping up in the West, in which irresponsible livestock grazing is degrading the health of our public lands, leading to decimation of native grasses, destruction of fragile soil crusts (which are key to soil moisture and fertility) and the spread of an invasive weed called cheatgrass. Cheatgrass takes over, burns with unnatural frequency, and soon dominates the range with weeds unpalatable to livestock and native wildlife alike. Today's cheatgrass problem is arguably the biggest rangeland health problem the West has ever seen.
It is clear that livestock grazing on public lands needs much more federal oversight and management, not less. Right now, our public lands are rented out to ranchers for a pittance ($1.69 for each cow-calf pair), while ranchers leasing private lands pay an average of $20 per cow-calf pair. At the same time, the federal livestock grazing program gets only a tiny percentage of its revenue from grazing fees, and the taxpayers have to subsidize the rest. Even with these subsidies, many federal grazing leases are never even checked for land health due to the shortage of federal range management professionals in the responsible agencies.
Overgrazing is all too prevalent, damaging the land and degrading wildlife habitats. Of the grazing leases that do get checked, an appallingly large number of acres are failing rangeland health standards. Perhaps it's time to level the playing field between public and private lands and charge public-land ranchers the average market rate charged for comparable private lands. The additional revenue should then be allocated to federal agencies to hire enough staff to prevent unhealthy levels of livestock grazing.
2. An extremist fringe wants to seize our public lands. The Bundy gang is simply the most militant expression of a political push in the West to take our public lands, which goes so far as to challenge the legality of the federal government to own property on behalf of all Americans. This effort includes laws passed in state legislatures in Utah and Wyoming to study state takeovers of federal public land. And in Congress, the land-grabbers are also pushing legislation to privatize Western public lands. For Americans who enjoy their public lands, from families who camp in national parks to sportsmen and women who hunt and fish on national forests and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands, to Western communities that depend on clean water from public land watersheds, the land-grab efforts of those like Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raúl Labrador (Idaho) pose a direct threat to the rights of all citizens to enjoy our public lands and the clean water they provide. Congress needs to slam the door on this land-grab to safeguard one of America's most prized and unique assets: our public lands.
3. A new mandate has emerged for public lands protection. The Bundys clearly thought they would be welcomed as liberators in eastern Oregon. Instead, they got a chorus of "go home!" from local officials and residents, often expressed in more colorful (and less charitable) terms. And nationwide, the Twitterverse lit up with jeers of "#YallQaeda" and "#VanillaISIS." Americans in general, and Westerners in particular, love our public lands and don't want to see them turned over to county authorities, state governments or sold off to become private property.
The land-grab movement, of which the Bundys are a part, aims to systematically trample the rights of all Americans by shifting control of federal public lands into the hands of local governments and groups that represent exclusively local interests. The result often sacrifices long-term land health for short-term profits. And it ignores the rights of the vast majority of Americans who have an equal stake in public land ownership, but don't happen to live nearby.
Public lands, and their protection, have long been wildly popular among the vast majority of Americans. The "local control" movement, on the other hand, benefits not local communities but moneyed special interests. The public outcry against the Bundy takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has become a rallying point for the majority of Americans who see the protection of public lands as good stewardship, not government overreach.
President Obama should respond to this attack on America's greatest idea not by stepping back, but by stepping up and protecting deserving Western lands as national mpnuments, starting with the Bears Ears/Cedar Mesa area of southern Utah. Clearly, more federal control is needed to protect these fragile national treasures for the benefit of all, and applying national monument status would be an excellent start.
4. The rule of law must be evenly applied. The Bundys and their followers violated the law with an armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge, and faced nationwide condemnation as a result. Now they must be held accountable under the rule of law.
Law enforcement agencies also should pause to reflect. Law enforcement is swift and decisive when it comes to armed threats from Muslims, and far too often for unarmed members of racial minorities. Law enforcement agencies were slow to respond to the illegal actions of the Bundy cabal. This apparent difference in enforcement fuels the nationwide perception of racial and religious bias in law enforcement. Our nation has a long and painful history of leniency for armed militants with white skin: compare federal crackdowns against the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement with the lack of accountability historically enjoyed by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. If federal law enforcement had acted decisively to arraign the perpetrators after the Mesquite, Nev. standoff in 2014, the Bundys would have been in prison, the Oregon incident would never have come to pass and LaVoy Finicum, former spokesman for the militants, would still be alive.
The Bundys' illegal takeover of a national wildlife refuge shines a spotlight on some of the West's thorniest problems. But if as a nation we can learn the lessons and take the appropriate corrective action, we can emerge from it stronger, with a healthier and more vibrant West, complete with the crown jewels of our shared public lands.
Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit organization working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.