I was in Costa Rica with friends and family when a group of armed malcontents took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. At first I laughed them off as a joke. After all, how else could one reasonably react to the occupation of an unoccupied building on a refuge in the middle of an Oregon winter? Then I dismissed it as a whiny, childish tantrum doomed to failure—a bunch of entitled, self-important blowhards waving their guns around and screaming about how unfairly they and everyone like them are being treated. Surely, I thought, this can’t possibly last.
Now, as the occupation approaches the one-month mark, I’m looking at it much differently. I won’t claim to be an expert on ranching, and I’m not going to get into the politics of the situation or the issues—real or perceived—that these ranchers have with the federal government and its apportioning of land. I don’t care about them or their complaints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if they all froze out there at Malheur. If that seems like a callous disregard for human life, then fine. Whatever happens to them, they brought on themselves.
What I care about is this: they’re on my land, and I want it back. The national wildlife refuge system was created to set aside wild lands for preservation and public visitation. Every single refuge belongs, not to the federal government, as these occupiers would have you believe, nor to them, as they’d like, but to us, the citizens of the United States. In a very real sense, this land is ours, and we should all demand that these armed occupiers be removed and made to feel the full weight of justice’s hammer. The local community doesn’t want them there, the ranchers who they’re ostensibly fighting for have publicly distanced themselves from Bundy and his gang, and whatever minimal support the occupiers had at the beginning has all but vanished into the same insubstantiality that undergirds their cause. Return the land to the people? Please. It was already ours. This is nothing more than a glorified land grab, the transfer of a public resource into the hands of a few ranchers to do with as they please.
And who suffers the most in the end? The animals—the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians who rely on Malheur’s bounty and protection for survival. That’s why I want the land back—not for any greedy, self-serving reason, as is the case with Bundy and the rest, but for the non-human animals who, for at least part of their lives, call Malheur home. These men aren’t just threatening the federal government or the citizens of this country, they’re threatening the lives of countless creatures for whom refuges like Malheur are critical—and the longer the occupiers are there, the more damage they do and the more they put those lives at risk.
As this travesty stretches on, my real worry is this: Malheur is a tipping point, a wedge being driven between those who want federal lands put back into the hands of the states to exploit and abuse, and those who understand the importance of preserving wild lands and appreciate that this Earth belongs to more than just us—that the non-human inhabitants have as much right to live their lives free of harm and persecution as we do. If we cave to these criminals and thugs here, if Malheur is unjustly stripped from our hands and given to those who care only for themselves, what’s next? My fear is that, far from an isolated incident, the dismantling of Malheur would be the first step in the unraveling of the entire national wildlife refuge system and the loss both of our most cherished places and all the animals who depend on them. It would end a century-long commitment to conservation, and reverse the efforts of countless people who’ve worked tirelessly to restore at least a piece of the wild spaces we once had.
These lands are our heritage, our birthright, and no band of armed bullies has the right to take them from us, or to run roughshod over them and doom countless species of birds, mammals, and a myriad of other creatures—these marvels of nature, deserving of our respect, admiration, and care—to oblivion. As always, the choice is ours, but history will not look kindly on us if we fail them.
It’s time to take a stand. It’s time to take Malheur back.
There are many actions we could take, but at this point the most effective means of showing your support is through a donation to the Friends of Malheur National Wildllife Refuge, which you can do here.