On Malheur

An American Avocet and her chicks — one of over 320 species found in Malheur. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A decade ago, I visited Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the first time. I arrived, along with the trio of other students from our ornithology class, at the same spot these militia-members, these seditionist goons, are currently holed. We’d barreled across the near-entirety of the state; from Portland, we’d jounced for hours. We watched Oregon shift from evergreen ecotopia to desert-run interior, swapping spruce for sagebrush, fir for fields of swaying grasses. Hours east of the Cascades, we pushed. Hours of Oregon passed. Hours of nothing, on our way to Malheur.

The trip was the culmination of a school-year’s worth of birding studies. Nine months of ornithology, taught by a man, an institution, who’d led the class for some four decades at our school. Mr. D., everyone called him. A soft voice, a broad grin, a glinting eye after a question that he knew was just outside our reach. A pillar at that school. Teaching generations about the basics of biology, the intricacies of physical compounds. Teaching students about the birds.

We’d taken a few field trips prior: to the coast, to the local rhododendron gardens. Taking in gulls and kingfishers, scoters and scaups, egrets and oystercatchers. Identifying by wing-tips. Identifying by toe colorings. Identifying by distant calls. Months and months, poring through the evolutionary tics, the families and phyla, the geographic spreads. Meeting once or twice a week — this was a pass-fail elective — to practice how to figure a species from its silhouette, how to take a trill and braack and brrr-ee-ta we’d heard and expand it into a bird we could recognize.

And Malheur was the capstone. Every spring, Mr. D. would wrangle the handful of high schoolers, those who’d lucked or slipped or fumbled their way into his ornithology class, and tack us southward to Malheur. None of us really knew what — let alone where — Malheur was, or what the trip would entail. Mr. D. would drop Malheur into a conversation, randomly, beginning in the fall; none of us paid much attention. We were too focused on college applications, on student body dramas, on all the desiderata that consumes high school seniors. We didn’t know what Malheur was. We didn’t pay it much mind.

But then fall crept into winter, and winter blew into spring, and suddenly we were looking at permission documents for a trip to Malheur. We signed the forms — or had our parents sign, I guess — and packed for the five-day trek, along with the geology students who’d also be coming. A last field trip, for those of us about to push into whatever came next.

This was a time before iPhones, before Twitter — before Facebook. We had our MP3 players, but mostly we had our conversation, our exhausted conversations, worn out by four years slogging toward the end of the tunnel that lay just beyond. Talked about whatever we came to: whatever badinage it is high schoolers share, with all the import that entails. Oregon flattened, spread. We stopped over in Burns — someone told us to avoid the fish at the local restaurant — and, after stretching our legs, shoved the final few dozen miles toward Malheur’s cordon.

I don’t want to pretend like I remember much about the park’s designs, the reserve’s history, the interactions with the rangers and officials and personnel manning the place. This was a decade ago; I had other things on my mind. This won’t be some kind of bird-based bildungsroman.

But there were moments in Malheur, shaded memories, that linger, longer than they necessarily should. We were there to bird, after all. So we spent days, sunrise to sunset, diurnal and crepuscular, out there, out in the park, crawling along the gravel, casting for any movement. Sidling up, slowly, to take in a Short-Eared Owl resting on a road-post. Watching the California Quails scamper behind our cabins, a half-step too slow for their own good. Black-Billed Magpies glistening, obsidian, as they flew off on approach. A Killdeer, feathers fanned to protect her nest from our prying eyes. White-Faced Ibises swooshing overhead, Eared Grebes paddling through their ponds, Western Meadowlarks — that state bird, shared by so many others — clasping to the cat-tails, burbling into the wind.

We peered through our binoculars: there were a pair of roosting Great-Horned Owls, doting on their cliff-side owlets. We peered through the same binoculars a few hours later: there were a pair of Sandhill Cranes, legging their way through a distant marsh, as convincing an argument linking dinosaurs and their avian cousins as any of us had ever seen. We listened to an American Bittern bleat into the night. We shaded our eyes as Golden Eagles pinwheeled overhead. We counted the warblers — Townsend’s, Canada, Wilson’s — blinking through the shrubs.

Over the few days, between the handful of us, we ticked off over 100 species: not even a third of the species on hand. Eighty-one of them were new for me. Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Black-Crowned Night-Herons. Clark’s Nutcrackers and Cassin’s Finches. Redheads and Bobolinks and Canvasbacks. Dozens of species I’d never seen before. Dozens of species I’ve never seen since.

Hundreds of species there, waiting, available to anyone with the wherewithal to trek to the most isolated region in the contiguous US. Tucked away. Protected.

* * *

Malheur was — is — one of the foremost jewels in Oregon’s outsized crown. It’s also one of its least-known. And it would have remained that way, were it not for a group of armed militia-men, claiming the tyranny of the Bureau of Land Management, claiming that the time had come for revolutionary acts, to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, to “kill or be killed.” These insurrectionists, bathed in self-importance, convinced that their stand is the right one, right now. Boring into Malheur — placing sharpshooters atop the fire towers — and crowing about protecting a pair of criminals who don’t even support them. About backing a community who doesn’t even want them. About why they’d decided to cobble a coterie of out-of-staters — the actual Oregonians remain significantly outnumbered — at a vacant wildlife refuge as far from anything as you could hope.

The ease with which they took the refuge morphed into yet another reason to mock these grunts, whose views range from neo-Nazism to the assertion that, of all things, slavery never existed in the United States. They’d opted for the emptiest entryway, and brayed that they’d beaten back the dictatorship reigning. They were all but asking for the ridicule pursuant.

But the refuge isn’t vacant, really. This isn’t some abandoned apartment complex, or empty academic quad. This is a parcel of land set aside by Teddy Roosevelt, one of six such refuges set west of the Mississippi, demarcated distinctly “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” There may be no humans manning the welcome desk — there may be no one to stop the insurrectionists from accessing government files — and there seems a decreasing likelihood that Malheur will foment the firefight many feared. But these minutemen have already threatened one of the continent’s preeminent wildlife sanctuaries.

This isn’t a truncated compound, as in Waco. This isn’t an isolated cabin, as in Ruby Ridge. This is an intricate overlay of ecologies, largely, and necessarily, devoid of human interaction. As the Audubon Society of Portland wrote, “The occupation of Malheur by armed, out of state militia groups puts one of America’s most important wildlife refuges at risk.”

And the longer this claque hunkers through their occupation — for “years,” for “the long haul” — the greater the threat to the birds sheltered under the refuge’s protection. The longer the militia burrows into the refuge, the more they imperil the populations — the Snowy Egrets and Ferruginous Hawks, the Wilson’s Phalaropes and Loggerhead Shrikes — that call the refuge home. The more these militants insist they’re attempting to return the land to the people, the more they’re threatening the deterioration, the destruction, of a last, best reprieve for these birding populations. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote when creating the refuge, “[W]arning is expressly given to all persons not to commit within the reserved territory any of the acts hereby enjoined.” Including, and perhaps most especially, armed insurrection.

* * *

Mr. D. retired last year, four decades after his first term teaching students on the wonder of the birds surrounding. Four decades after the idea to trek students to Malheur, to a refuge on the distant side of Oregon, first popped out. And the trips retired with him. (Not exactly a swelling demand for ornithological studies among high schoolers these days, unfortunately.) Still, perhaps the retirement was something of a silver lining: at least the annual Malheur trip won’t be forced to cancel because militants have decided to stake their final stand at a distant a birding sanctuary.

And there’s a certain, emetic irony in all of this. Even though the militia-members convoyed in from out of state, at least one found his way to Malheur for the same reason that I did, for the same reason generations have: birds. The man wouldn’t give his name — call him Captain Moroni, he said — but he claimed that he was inspired to join the militants because he saw, of all things, a flock of geese overhead. A sign from God, he called it. An ornithological omen. “I just knew it was the right thing [to come to Oregon],” Captain Moroni told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I’m willing to die here.”

Maybe he is. And maybe, the longer he lingers, the easier it becomes to laugh, to mock, to plaster hashtags on the men who’d topple governments in defense of a pair of arsonists, based in the middle of nowhere, in the heart of one of the nation’s final and foremost natural outposts. But the longer he and his paramilitary cosigns remain, the more they pile the threats against those who’ve required the refuge, those who need the sanctity of the sanctuary. The longer they last, the less the likelihood that the refuge will move forward unscathed. The longer they linger, the less the likelihood the birds will escape untouched, untrammeled, undisturbed by a squad of goons whose ecological respect, as they’ve made eminently clear, extends only as far as the barrels of their guns.