America’s National Wildlife Refuges: treasures worth defending
By Kenn Kaufman
Published February 28, 2016
Published February 28, 2016
The recent takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by the Bundy militia was such an unusual event that it spotlighted some gaps in understanding among the American public. Some of the confusion was enhanced by media hacks, uncritically repeating the militia’s claims—for example, the idea that their grab at freebies somehow had a constitutional basis. But the most surprising revelation for me was that so many Americans seemed unaware of the existence of National Wildlife Refuges.
News coverage of the Malheur situation ended rapidly after the last of the occupiers surrendered to law enforcement on February 11. But although the occupation is over, the threat to Malheur—and to other refuges and other public lands—is still very much alive. It’s important for the public to know more about the National Wildlife Refuges and their value to the American people.
Early in the occupation, national news outlets referred to Malheur as a “federal bird sanctuary in Oregon,” as if it were a quaint and unexpected place for the feds to keep their birds. But in fact the National Wildlife Refuges are not just bird sanctuaries, and they’re not just tucked away in western landscapes.
Administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 560 separate units. Twelve National Wildlife Refuges are located within 100 miles of New York City; ten are within 100 miles of Washington, DC. Others are very close to Miami, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Philadelphia, and most other major cities, while still others are as remote as isolated atolls southwest of Hawaii. National Wildlife Refuges are all over the U.S., yet many Americans barely realize that they exist.
As a result, an uninformed public may simply lump these refuges with other lands managed by the government. All public lands have value, but they’re not all the same. Different types of public lands should be considered on their own merits.
My own personal viewpoint is affected by the fact that I’ve been a birder all my life. I heard about National Wildlife Refuges when I was nine or ten, made my first visit to one at the age of eleven, and have spent hundreds of days on refuges since then.
Birders like me tend to be keenly aware of National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs), because most of us have had spectacular experiences there. Whooping cranes at Aransas NWR (Texas), snowy owls at Parker River NWR (Massachusetts), eagles at Ottawa NWR (Ohio), clouds of geese at Bosque del Apache NWR (New Mexico)—these and myriad other memories make us avid fans of the NWR system. Even so, most refuge visitors are not serious birders. Instead, they’re just members of the public, enjoying the outdoors and watching wildlife.
National Wildlife Refuges bring benefits beyond the enjoyment and education of visitors: they also provide huge boosts for local economies. People traveling to visit NWRs spend money at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, stores, and other businesses. Malheur NWR itself provides a good example: a recent study showed that visitors to the refuge from outside the region spent more than 13 million dollars per year in Harney County. If the refuge were closed down or turned over to local ranchers, as the militia suggested, that would lead to a catastrophic loss of income for nearby communities.
Why are the NWRs so outstanding for birds and wildlife? Location helps, but in addition, most are intensively managed to support native species. This management, all based on scientific principles, may include careful control of water levels, regulated amounts of grazing, occasional controlled burns, thinning of woodlots, and intensive control of invasive, non-native species of plants and animals.
“National Wildlife Refuges bring benefits beyond the enjoyment and education of visitors: they also provide huge boosts for local economies.”
Control of invasive species is particularly important, because these can degrade habitat and drive out native species. At Malheur the most problematic invasive is a fish, the common carp, accidentally set loose in local waters decades ago. Without active control measures, the carp would multiply enough to destroy the marshes throughout the refuge. A biologist on the staff had been working for several years on science-based approaches to reducing carp numbers for the benefit of all native wildlife at Malheur.
It was on this biologist’s desk that the occupying militia stacked their pizza boxes. The militia rifled through the desk, and on a video, they passed judgment on the biologist: “She’s not benefiting America. She’s part of what’s destroying America.”
Given the limited awareness displayed by the militia, it’s no surprise that they didn’t try to understand things like science or habitat management. They weren’t from the local area so they wouldn’t have known, or cared, about the effects of invasive carp on priceless habitat. Probably they wouldn’t have cared that towns in Harney County benefit from the proximity of Malheur NWR. The militia seemingly had no intention of helping the local community; they were pushing their own agenda.
In fact, the militia’s whole approach demonstrated a basic lack of comprehension. They arrived with the ostensible purpose of supporting two local ranchers. These ranchers had had run-ins with a U.S. government agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the militia responded, not by attacking the BLM, but by taking over a facility of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they couldn’t tell the difference. It was as if a gang of armed illiterates took over a public library and began burning books—to protest the actions of the local water company. It makes no sense.
And we shouldn’t expect their effort to make sense. While the Bundys might imagine themselves to be leaders in this movement, they’re not. Powerful, wealthy corporations and individuals are working behind the scenes to get their hands on public lands, and they’ll use any pretense to get communities in the west riled up against the federal government. For them, people like the Bundys are useful tools, expendable pawns who can make headlines and then go to jail. If these powerful interests get their way and take vast swaths of land away from the American public, small-time ranchers and small communities won’t gain anything—the profits will flow to those already at the top. But the occupiers at Malheur had no real concept of where their actions might lead.
“It was as if a gang of armed illiterates took over a public library and began burning books--to protest the actions of the local water company. It makes no sense.”
Some PR flacks in the media portrayed militia members as rugged individualists, as if that role required no more than a cowboy hat and stubble beard. But the Bundy kids are no more independent than their dad, welfare cowboy Cliven Bundy, who let his herds run wild on public land and refused to pay even the artificially-low government grazing fees. No, if you’re looking for a rugged individualist, let me recommend Theodore Roosevelt. He was an explorer, a rancher, a military hero with the “Rough Riders,” and U.S. President from 1901 to 1909. As president, Roosevelt was responsible for establishing national forests, national monuments, national parks, and the first National Wildlife Refuges—including Malheur NWR in 1908.
Theodore Roosevelt was a genuine American patriot who understood the value of public lands. The forces trying to undo Roosevelt’s work don’t deserve our respect or attention. Presumably the Bundy ringleaders will be in prison for a while, but shadowy billionaires and misguided politicians are still quietly working to dismantle our legacy of public lands. Members of the birding community—and others who care about the natural world—will have to do a much better job of speaking out, standing up, and defending the National Wildlife Refuges if we’re going to keep them.