Malheur and Misfortune on Federal Public Lands

 The Malheur National Widlife Refuge. Photo: John Bromley

The Malheur National Widlife Refuge. Photo: John Bromley

Over the weekend armed protesters stormed and occupied a federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Oregon.  Their complaint?  In this instance, the group is protesting against criminal charges brought against ranchers starting fires on federal lands in the region.  In general, the group is part of a small but vocal movement to return federal lands to states or private landowners.  Here is Jed Purdy on why their argument stands on shaky ground:

The Bundys’ side of these fights is rooted in the radical idea that the federal government was never supposed to hold Western lands permanently, but instead should have ceded them to the states or granted them directly to private owners. It is possible to piece together this argument from the text of the Constitution, but courts have never accepted it. It is not really a legal theory but a political wish that history ended in 1891, when the federal government began to create national forests, or even back in 1872, when Congress made Yellowstone the country’s first national park.

So it seems the best bet, if the law isn't on your side, is to make a spectacle of federal lands management.  In the Malheur Refuge, the group is exploiting recent disagreements between ranchers and wildlife refuge officials, who are required to prioritized the well-being of (you guessed it) wildlife.  Except that those disagreements may be overblown.  The ranchers in question have not backed the largely out-of-state protest group, and locals who participated in the most recent management planning process saw the Malheur as a model for collaboration, not conflict:

In 2013, Malheur completed its Comprehensive Conservation Plan. This is a long-range vision and management plan that all refuges are required to complete. Malheur stood alone in the refuge system for deciding to have a very inclusive, transparent stakeholder process which included local ranchers, county commissioners, tribes, conservation groups, local, state and federal agencies, etc.
We met many times over the course of three years and much to everybody’s surprise emerged with a consensus, collaborative approach that includes major initiatives on both the refuge and surrounding ranch lands. It is a plan that tries to respect both the ecology and the economics of the region. The groups involved have remained actively engaged in implementing the plan. It includes one of the largest wetland restoration efforts ever undertaken.

Having witnessed and participated in the stakeholder engagement process for Biscayne National Park's General Management Plan, which sparked a similar conflict between marine conservationists and fishermen, I can attest to the challenge it can be to satisfy every stakeholder's demands.  That's especially true when ideals like exploitation and conservation appear mutually exclusive.  There is some irony in the calls for federal relinquishment of public lands, as well.  First, because it was federal control that may have saved the Malheur in the first place:

Before the federal agencies came to eastern Oregon, large ranching operations from California had monopolized hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland. Irrigation developers controlled water, cattle barons controlled the grass, and settlers were essentially locked out. Tensions were high.
During the 1890s, a populist, anti-monopolist rhetoric emerged among settlers and news editors. The local newspaper deplored the fact that the great Western ranges were passing into “the hands of a few big cattle or sheep companies,” and predicted that soon “an aristocracy of range lords and cattle kings would rule our mountains and plains.” In 1897, Peter French, the cattle baron who controlled the largest ranching empire in America, along the Blitzen River, was murdered by an angry homesteader. Arson, violence and grinding poverty flourished.

And second, because these lands were already occupied when the federal government laid claim to them on behalf of western settlers.  Purdy again:

Harney County was largely Paiute land until the Civil War, and later settler pressure and violence eroded the tribe’s claim to lands that were nominally reserved to it. The age of settlement lasted a few generations in eastern Oregon, beginning with the bloody dispossession of indigenous peoples and ending with the rather gentle conclusion of federal privatization.
American vigilantism is never racially innocent. Its two parents are self-mobilization on the frontier, usually against Native Americans at a time when homesteading was reserved to whites, and the racial terror of the Ku Klux Klan in the South during and after Reconstruction. It is too much to call the occupiers “domestic terrorists,” as the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh or the Klan were, but it is also obtuse to ignore the special comfort that certain white men have using guns as props in their acts of not-quite-civil disobedience. After all, guns were how they acquired their special sense of entitlement to public lands in the first place.