Our American outdoor heritage at risk

Reflections on Malheur, our public lands, and those who would take them from us

The seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed extremists demanding that the government hand over America’s public lands to local or private control has ended. But the struggle to keep our public lands in public hands is far from finished.

Fly fishing on public lands in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

As a lifelong Washingtonian and a passionate hunter, angler, climber, skier and conservationist, at times it feels like the movement to seize our nation’s public lands is an assault on my identity. My parents and grandparents raised me with public dirt under my fingernails. Some of my earliest memories include fishing for salmon on rivers flowing out of the Cascades, gathering mushrooms in Olympic National Forest, and hunting on wildlife areas across Eastern Washington. Throughout my life I’ve gone to these places to feel not apart from nature, but a part of it.

What then is someone like me to make of those who recently seized a piece of our public endowment? And what of the larger movement behind the “Oregon Standoff”, one that’s well-organized and well-funded with the aim of taking for private benefit the public lands that I and so many others have relied on?

In discussing the formation of the U.S. Forest Service, President Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration.”

The extremists who took over Malheur used armed intimidation to pursue the “transfer” of public lands for private gain and personal redress. I’m glad they have been brought to justice and face prosecution for law-breaking and using intimidation in an attempt to steal our natural heritage. However, like the “Sagebrush Rebellion” before them, their land grab crusade is not over.

Backed by groups like the American Lands Council and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not to mention shadowy billionaire donors including the Koch Brothers, the Malheur debacle was just one skirmish in a bigger conflict. Even in Washington state we’ve seen attempts by some elected officials to pass legislation studying the “transfer” of our public lands. The desire of all these groups? To handover America’s forests, deserts, wildlife refuges and other public lands to state or county control. And then when these local entities cannot afford to manage such lands, as numerous studies show would certainly be the case, have them sold off to private corporations for unrestricted logging, fracking and mining or to be bought up as playgrounds for the very rich. If they have their way, the tagline of our public lands will shift from “This Land is Your Land” to “No Trespassing.”

Let there be no doubt, there is zero constitutional or legal basis for extremist claims denouncing America’s public lands. There is however a loud sentiment among some that environmental regulations are driving the economic woes of rural communities. I, and Conservation Northwest, recognize that some citizens and certain public land users may feel hemmed in by government bureaucracy. Or even by the actions of conservation groups.

While environmental regulations are a fundamental necessity for ensuring that current and future generations can use these lands for both extractive and non-extractive purposes, Conservation Northwest is an organization that engages in open dialogue and genuine listening to find common ground and collaboratively reach solutions to challenging issues. “Us vs. Them” mentalities and “Green vs. Brown” culture wars do no one any good, least of all our wildlife and wildlands.

Interestingly, Malheur itself is one such collaborative success story. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established on August 18, 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt. Unclaimed government lands in the area were set aside “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” Land was added to the refuge over the years through purchases from willing landowners. With enduring partnerships between refuge staff, state and federal agencies, local farmers and ranchers, and other stakeholders including birders and hunters, Malheur became “known for listening,” a model for successful collaboration on America’s public lands; a point apparently lost on those who seized the refuge to advance their land grab agenda.

Public lands for all

Public lands managed by the federal government for all Americans not only protect our history, wildlife habitat, and natural beauty, but they draw visitors from across the country and around the world. More than 307 million people visited national parks last year, a new record high, and even more hiked, camped, fished, watched wildlife, and enjoyed other public lands like national forests and wildlife refuges.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

And despite the extremists who spent the last 41 days grabbing headlines, bi-partisan polling has consistently shown broad public support for federal ownership of public lands. What’s more, many ranchers and other commercial users of public lands recognize that their fees for utilizing public lands are a fraction of what they’d likely pay to conduct the same for-profit activity on private property. The ranchers I’ve had the pleasure of working with also recognize that responsible management of public rangelands is key to their industry and their way of life.

Studies have also shown that “rural counties in the West with the most federal lands did better economically than other counties. Those counties saw faster growth in population, employment, personal income, and per capital income growth” (Headwater Economics). The outdoor recreation industry alone generates “6.1 million jobs a year and $646 billion in consumer spending nationwide” (Outdoor Industry Association). In Washington state nearly 200,000 jobs are supported directly or indirectly by outdoor recreation, more than our state’s technology or aerospace industries (Earth Economics). Extremist propaganda may try to make some residents believe otherwise, but public lands are undeniably good for local communities and economies.

Protected and connected public lands are at the core of Conservation Northwest’s mission. And we firmly believe that public lands are the birthright of all Americans. They’re vital habitat for fish and wildlife, and give all of us, rich or poor, urban or rural, the opportunity to hike, ski, climb, fish, hunt and much more. As conservationist John Muir put it, these are places to find “beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Public forestlands are also the source of most of America’s drinking water and store vast amounts of carbon to stabilize our climate. And when we share and manage them according to thoughtful stewardship and the rule of law, public lands provide the resources for sustainable forestry, livestock grazing and other commercial uses.

Our national parks, wildlife refuges, forests and other public lands belong to all of us. And from producing videos to petitioning the media and elected leaders to holding rallies and events, organizations and stakeholders of all types, from conservationists to recreationists to hunters and anglers, will continue working to keep America’s public lands in public hands.

That oft-quoted founding father of conservation Theodore Roosevelt said one more thing that’s worth dwelling on today: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

100 years since T.R. and we still face threats to our country’s natural wonders. But in the face of these new “greedy interests”, let it be known that we have not forgotten Roosevelt’s warning. And to those who would steal our sacred heritage: know that we will not let you.

Chase Gunnell is the Communications Manager at Conservation Northwest. To learn more about Conservation Northwest’s work protecting public lands and supporting wildlife conservation in Washington state and British Columbia, please visit: www.conservationnw.org/publiclands

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