When a Portland, Oregon, jury returned a "not guilty" verdict for the Bundys on conspiracy charges related to their armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter, a handful of the scofflaws' supporters danced in the streets.
But the Bundys' armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has long since been convicted in the court of public opinion and sentenced to the fringes of the national debate over how America's public lands should be managed.
This sorry episode of armed bullying succeeded only in spreading public awareness of pernicious attempts to despoil or steal outright our national treasure of Western public lands.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in his wisdom to protect sensitive wetlands that harbor a dazzling array of waterfowl and shorebirds. For a month-and-a-half last January, it was transformed into a media circus as militants armed with assault rifles ran roughshod over the land with bulldozers, tore out fences and dug through the office basements to disturb Native American artifacts.
The militants who dreamed of overthrowing our democracy with small bands of domestic terrorists armed with pocket Constitutions and assault rifles are just the tip of the iceberg. These armed extremists are working in tandem with fringe lawmakers and local officials who seek a hostile takeover of our federal public lands to open them up to unregulated exploitation by commercial interests.
Led by the American Lands Council and its far-right mouthpiece Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R), and funded by the Koch brothers, these groups seek to undermine responsible land stewardship and turn over federal public lands to states.
Public lands can then be sold off to the highest bidder, or be thrown open to every corporation that would like to plunder their valuable natural resources. At the same time, so-called "constitutional sheriffs" are suing to block federal officials from doing their job of overseeing public lands managed by federal agencies.
For virtually Western state, the state constitution explicitly requires the state government forever to disclaim any right or title to federal public lands. So the land seizure efforts of Cliven Bundy and his disciples are, ironically, unconstitutional.
The Bundys, as it turns out, are uniters, not dividers: Their actions drew near-universal condemnation. From local residents of rural Harney County to national environmental groups, from sportsmen to local Shoshone officials, leaders from across the breadth of the political spectrum recognized the militants' occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuges as the unpatriotic and un-American acts of a lunatic fringe, and called for them to leave.
The Bundys demanded that federal agencies sweep aside commonsense regulations that limit destruction of national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands and National Wildlife Refuges to accomplish their stated goal of freeing up corporate interests to wring every possible dollar out of our public lands, regardless of the destruction to lands and wildlife.
They were wrong, and now face a growing national consensus that our public lands should remain in public hands and continue to be managed to promote healthy lands and wildlife.
What we as a nation have learned from this disturbing episode of uncivil disobedience is that our public lands are of immense and incalculable value to all of us, and we cannot afford to take them for granted.
As Americans saw their public lands threatened by armed takeover, they rallied to defend them.
The insurgency's leadership remains jailed while members await trial on more serious charges related to the armed riot in southern Nevada, in which militants blocked the removal of the Bundys' trespassing livestock. Their livestock, already marked for removal by federal courts in 1998, continues to damage fragile desert habitats and endangered the survival of rare desert tortoises.
This is unfinished business that federal officials must clean up. And as the legal proceedings move back to Nevada, the Bundys must answer for their crimes there, and federal prosecutors should bring the full weight of the law to bear so that justice can be served.
At first blush, it seems that the Bundys have won this particular battle, but, in fact, they are losing the war.
Even as the Bundys dodge legal accountability in Oregon, their actions have dealt the land-seizure movement a fatal blow to its credibility across America.
Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group working to protect Western watersheds and wildlife.
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