I’ve been meaning to write about the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge for weeks but I just haven’t been able to. My keyboard simply can’t put up with the frustrated key mashing that ensues when my fingers attempt to act as a safety blowoff valve for my thoughts. While I’m not sure that I have a totally unique perspective on the issue, I can’t hold my proverbial internet tongue any longer.
America’s public lands are important to me. I’ve written before about asinine attempts by state legislators to transfer federal lands to state ownership and about how litter on public lands is not only infuriating but can lead to closure of lands by motorized uses. I have spent significant amounts of time wandering around our public lands mostly on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands with bits of exploring National Park Service lands. Hardly a week goes by in which I do not enjoy the freedom that our public lands afford either by exploring gravel roads, hiking to remote peaks, running trails and wandering through remote washes and canyons.
I recently got in a (Twitter) debate with a denizen of the eastern portion of our country who mused about the small percentage of public land east of the Mississippi as compared to the sizeable percentage west of the Mississippi. I didn’t really keep my cool in the debate. To me, a life long westerner who has spent just enough time in the east to make me aware of differences, our public lands are one of the biggest reasons that our country is great. I have written about this before and shared a lovely piece by Tim Egan about the luxury of a public land area more than three times the size of France. This is one of the amazing things about America; we have set aside large swaths of our country for recreation, preservation, exploration, and, dare I say, healing.
The first answer to “why is there so much public land in the West?” is the climate. Explorer, self-taught scientist, and amazing public servant John Wesley Powell understood that the American West was too arid for agricultural development like that in the east and argued for cooperatives between farmers and rancher for small scale water development funded by themselves, not the federal government. We ignored him and built large dams and the government funded disjointed water projects throughout the west. (I reviewed and highly recommend Wallace Stegner’s Beyond The Hundredth Meridian for more background in Powell.) This land is public because the economics of private ownership do not work (federal grazing fees, of which Cliven Bundy still owes over $1 million, are drastically lower than on private land as a result of lower quality and infrastructure costs plus fees not keeping pace with inflation). Oregon’s eastern “outback” is arid and sparsely populated much more like Utah than like the wet valleys west of the Cascades.
Secondly, and perhaps the better answer to “Constitution” wielding Malheur occupiers, Oregon gave up rights to those public lands when they became a state (as did Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Nevada) under a disclaimer clause found in their respective statehood enabling acts (excellent opinion piece in High Country News, subscription required). Each state had to give up “all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States,” a power granted to the federal government by the Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2):
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
Reading comprehension is not the strong suit of the militia since this clause clearly grants Congress the power to regulate federal lands as they see fit, including as a National Wildlife Refuge.
BLM: Toadstools near Kanab, Utah
The Constitutional argument is simply a front for advancing their own personal needs: they plan to open the refuge for grazing this spring and demand that the land be given back to the locals. The locals, residents of Harney County, appear to just want the militia to go home and allow them to get back to their daily lives (Steens Mountain Brewing is waiting for the occupation to end so they can get a Kickstarter going to fund a new nanobrewery!) The Paiute tribe is calling for a swift end to the occupation as the militia rifles through artifacts stored at the Refuge.
My heart goes out to the people of Harney County and of Oregon. It breaks for all of us, the ones who look forward to hiking Steens Mountain, value the irreplaceable migratory bird habitat, and treasure the artifacts of pre-Columbian use of the land.
Kofa Wildlife Refuge
Many of my blog readers will have already heard about the occupation and are property incensed but I encourage each and every one of you to explain the absurdity of occupation and, perhaps more importantly, the wonder and value of our public lands, to your friends, your parents, your children, and anyone who will listen. Our country gives each and everyone of us the inheritance of our public lands and it is our job to protect that inheritance for the generations that follow.
Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge
Also, shout out to the people who sent dildos and lube to the protesters. It’s been my only bright giggling spot in this whole ordeal.
Update: Less than 12 hours after I hit “publish” on this post, the Ammon and Ryan Bundy plus several others were arrested by the FBI and Harney County Sheriffs somewhere between Burns and John Day. Ammon later issued a statement asking the occupiers to “stand down” but the issue is ongoing. Coverage from The Oregonian can be found here.