The Bundy takeover: What does it mean for conservation?

From Fox News to the Salt Palace aisles, this week has been rife with chatter about an obscure bird sanctuary and the 20 self-proclaimed liberators who’re staging a heavily armed takeover there. But conservation advocates at ORWM say that much of the TV discussion of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is misinformed—and missing the point that this “patriotic” siege is a real threat to wild lands access.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The standoff started when the two sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy stormed onto the refuge, loaded with automatic weapons and body armor, and took over its buildings in protest of extended prison sentences for ranchers convicted of arson after setting fire to federal land.

“This thing goes back decades,” said John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance. “It’s rooted in people who make their living on federal lands not wanting the federal government to tell them what they can do on those federal lands.”

One irony, said Sterling, is that the Bundys and others like them pay almost nothing to use the land for cattle grazing. “It’s an interesting situation where people’s livelihood is subsidized by the federal government by rock-bottom grazing permits … and they’re complaining about it,” Sterling said.

Numerous OR attendees we talked to argue that the Bundy group’s actions and messages are inconsistent and that their demands range from unclear to untenable. Meanwhile, efforts by law enforcement to get the group to leave the land have been unsuccessful, even though locals are almost unanimously opposed to the takeover. Through all of this, wild lands advocates worry about people empathizing with the Bundys argument that federal lands should be managed by state and local agencies.

What the Bundys are doing is symbolic of a larger movement among Americans who want the government to have less control over our lands, said Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund. “I’m concerned about this as a political trend,” Robinson said, and what could happen if federal oversight went away. Imagine, for instance, how lax enforcement of ORV intrusions might become in southern Utah.

Another issue, said Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, is that many Americans can’t gain easy access to parks, like the inner-city students OIA and others are trying support. If the Bundys’ quest succeeds, he noted, creating a more diverse community of outdoor enthusiasts will be harder.