Illustration by Josette Matoto

Public lands for the people and by the people, not the Bundys

by Marissa Knodel, climate change campaigner

Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon encompasses nearly 188,000 acres of resting, breeding and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and other species. Its purpose is to protect these bird species and provide a pristine area for birding, fishing, hunting and hiking. Lately, however, it’s been making headlines for far different reasons.

Starting January 2, a self-proclaimed militia broke into the abandoned headquarters at the Malheur Refuge, following a demonstration in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond, arrested for arson after setting fires that spread to public land in 2001 and 2006. Boiled down to the essentials, the leaders of the occupation — Ammon and Ryan Bundy — describe this dispute as a battle between the federal government and the American people over land and resources, land that the American government took from the Paiute people, and which they still consider sacred. Yet their father, rancher Cliven Bundy, has robbed taxpayers of more than one million dollars for the right to graze cattle on public lands. The Bundys claim their armed occupation is about taking a hard stance against the federal government for the people, and that they are prepared to remain for years until the federal government relinquishes control of the wildlife refuge.

The federal agencies responsible for managing our public lands and waters have a mandate to manage them in the best interests of the American people. That includes conservationists, birdwatchers, hikers and future generations of Americans who also have a stake in the beauty, health and vitality of our natural heritage. Contrary to what the Bundys claim, the majority of Americans in the west support letting the federal government manage our lands.

There are more than 100,000 oil and gas wells — 1,700 of which are on national wildlife refuges — and 300 coal mines on our public lands. Today, more than 67 million acres — an area 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park — have already been leased to the fossil fuel industry.

Protecting one of the largest habitats for migratory birds in the American West is exactly what the federal government should be doing. To turn the spotlight on where the federal government is failing the American people in its mandate, look no further than the fossil fuel leasing programs. Every year, millions of acres are auctioned off to private companies to mine, frack and drill for dirty fossil fuels that pollute our air and water and threaten climate catastrophe. There are more than 100,000 oil and gas wells — 1,700 of which are on national wildlife refuges — and 300 coal mines on our public lands. Today, more than 67 million acres — an area 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park — have already been leased to the fossil fuel industry. Those acres were sold for rental fees of less than $2.00 per acre for oil and gas, and $3.00 per acre for coal. To make matters worse, the federal government often suspends oil and gas leases that are not in development, effectively extending the time companies are allowed to drill.

There is value in places like the Malheur Refuge that cannot be quantified into dollars and cents. We cannot afford to lose them any more than we can continue allowing fossil fuel empires to turn other iconic places like Chaco Canyon, Arches National Park, the Grand Tetons and numerous other threatened wild places into energy sacrifice zones.

This polluter giveaway truly threatens a safe and healthy environment for all, including ranchers and their cattle. People across the country are standing up against this outrage, without taking up arms. In October 2015, protests of onshore oil and gas lease sales have taken place in Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska and Nevada under the “Keep it in the Ground” banner. Protests were also planned for lease sales scheduled for November 17 in Utah and December 10 in Washington, D.C., but the Bureau of Land Management postponed them without much notice or explanation.

If we really want to reform federal management over our lands and waters, we need to start by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. We need to demand that the federal government stop auctioning off our natural heritage to fossil fuel empires by peacefully protesting every time it attempts to sell fossil fuels that we cannot afford to dig up and burn. Such public demonstration of opposition is a valid exercise of our First Amendment rights and a truly democratic act for the people, by the people, in the name of responsible environmental stewardship for all over reckless self-interest.