The Necessity Of Wild Spaces

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Birds are extraordinary creatures. I find them endlessly fascinating and entirely captivating, and can easily spend hours with a single bird, never mind all those I can discover on a stroll through the woods or a day at the shore. Birding connects me directly to the heart and spirit of Nature, it calms and re-energizes me, and it reminds me that we are but a small piece of a grand puzzle, and that our concerns are not as important nor our worries as large as we make them out to be. When I’m in the company of birds, I want for nothing more—save, perhaps, the desire to share them with a kindred spirit or two.

I’ve birded in six countries, on four continents, and across two island chains. Here at home, I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine, into the desert southwest, down the Gulf Coast and along our southern border, and out to our country’s western edge. And though I’ve found myself in a variety of settings, many of the places I return to again and again are part of this country’s incredible system of national wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and parks. If you’ve ever spent time exploring one, it’s easy to see why: Not only are they true national treasures, marvelous in their own right, the lands contained within them provide safe haven, and sometimes a final stronghold, for a multitude of plants and animals (there are approximately 1300 species in the United States listed as endangered; around two-thirds of those exist on federal lands)—critical shelter from many of the dangers they face outside these protected areas.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

The hazards that migratory birds encounter can be particularly acute. Migration itself is a perilous venture, involving vast distances that push even the strongest birds to their limits. Many species fly for hundreds or thousands of miles at a stretch, and rely on stopover sites to feed and rest, allowing them to pack on reserves of fat and energy to power them along their epic journeys. As development, conversion to industrial agriculture, and other consumptive uses chew up more and more wild lands, the birds need sources of food and shelter they can count on. Our refuges and national parks thus take on special importance; without them, many birds would quite literally die before migration’s end—and many species, already in decline, might slip over the edge and slide inexorably into extinction. Allowing the loss of our protected federal lands to happen would be tragic; actively encouraging it would be a crime.

And yet that’s exactly what this administration is planning for. Two developments over the last few weeks make this clear. On the first day in session of the 115th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a new rule written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) that makes it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public lands—national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal areas—to states or local governments. The rule allows the 115th Congress to claim that any legislation disposing of public lands and natural resources costs the U.S. taxpayers exactly nothing, regardless of whether the Congressional Budget Office determines otherwise. In other words, Congress can give away our public lands for free, and, if necessary, charge the American people for the privilege of doing so.

Leading the resistance to this blatant attack, Democratic Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03) had this to say:

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd. This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”

Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, added his voice to the debate:

“Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on federal lands… This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

At first blush, turning federal lands over to the states and/or local municipalities in which they lie might not seem like a bad idea. I’ve visited many state parks, and they’re almost universally beautiful and well-maintained areas, often teeming with wildlife. However, most state and local governments may not have the budgets or staff to maintain such large parcels of land, and so would likely be forced to sell them to the highest bidder—and the extraction industry has a lot of money. Hello, mining and drilling operations, goodbye wildlife habitat and public recreation.

The second development happened at noon on January 20. Just after Donald Trump took the oath of office, underwent a drastic transformation, including the replacement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan with An America First Energy Plan, which contains language that should trouble anyone who cares about preserving our unspoiled wild spaces:

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

For those unsure, or unwilling to accept, what this means, allow me to translate: the Trump administration plans to allow fossil fuel extraction from national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. And it doesn’t stop at fossil fuels: federal lands containing uranium and copper deposits would also be at risk. Places like Grand Canyon National Park, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—places of unbounded beauty and immeasurable value—would be open for destruction. Desecrating such lands, upon which countless birds and animals (ourselves included) rely, to enrich the already obscenely wealthy through resource extraction is, in my mind, the most egregious insult to Nature, and the gravest form of sacrilege.

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

If these plans come to fruition, if Congress allows fossil fuel extraction from our public lands or sets the wheels in motion for turning them over to the highest bidder, then we stand to lose something precious, a birthright of all citizens of this country. We stand to lose these wild places that nurture and revitalize us, that provide emotional and spiritual succor, that nourish our beings, down to the core. We stand to lose a vital part of our heritage, and a large piece of what makes our country special, unique, and great.

But there are those who stand to lose much more. There are those who depend upon these lands, these wild spaces, for shelter, food, for their very survival. Our national parks and wildlife refuges harbor an incredible diversity of life—plants and animals for whom these lands must remain wild and natural.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, we are not the most important species on the planet; our needs and desires do not take precedence over the needs of all others. An intricate web links all life on this planet—one that’s evolved over countless millions of years. And in just a few short centuries, we’ve disrupted it and damaged it in the name of human progress. We’ve taken it nearly to the brink, and now we stand at a precipice, staring into an abyss of our own design that threatens to swallow us all.

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

As we move forward, as our elected officials prepare to give away for pennies a heritage of incalculable value to greedy developers and extraction companies, we would do well to remember this: just as we are not the most important here, we are also not somehow magically insulated from the damage and destruction we visit upon our planet. We are as dependent on Earth’s life support systems as any other organism, and we may yet reach a point of no return that finds us riding headlong into self-made oblivion. But even if we don’t, if we somehow survive the conversion of our environment into a barren wasteland, what would it matter? At what point is living on this planet no longer worth it? We’ve lost so much already, taken so many species to the edge of extinction or beyond—and each one that vanishes takes a bit of us with it. How many more do we have to imperil before we realize that the wondrous variety and diversity of life on Earth is what makes life on Earth worth living?

All the riches in the world are nothing compared to the graceful flight of Snow Geese across the evening sky; the raucous greetings between crows coming to roost; a murmuration of starlings—a million birds moving as one; the acrobatics of hunting swallows; the awe-inspiring sight of a Peregrine in full stoop; or the heartbreaking beauty of a thrush’s song ringing out through the clear morning air. Once they’re gone, after it’s too late, only then will we realize the true value of what we’ve lost.

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

You can read the full text of House Resolution 5 here (page 35 has the relevant section).

And you can find an article discussing the rules change in the Guardian here

… in the Washington Post here

… in Think Progress here

… and in Daily Kos here.

Malheur Madness

Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

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.