America's Lands for the American People

As a former director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) during the Clinton administration, the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government extremists has been a tragedy for me both professionally and personally. It has been a professional tragedy given my history as a former government official responsible for the management of the National Wildlife Refuge System and its dedicated employees. It has also touched me personally, since my husband spent many years as a refuge manager. So it is no exaggeration to say that the protection and appreciation of our wildlife refuges is hardwired into my DNA.

Started by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, the refuge system has grown to more than 560 units, providing a protective home to a diverse array of wildlife. Beyond the refuge system's immeasurable value to the wildlife legacy of this country, it has also provided enormous recreational and economic benefits to the American people. In 2013 alone, more than 47 million people visited and enjoyed our wildlife refuges. In 2011, visitors generated more than $2.4 billion in annual sales to local economies, resulting in 35,000 jobs and an estimated $342 million in tax revenues. Investments in refuges pay for themselves: for every dollar appropriated to refuges by Congress, it is estimated that the average return is $4.78, a rate of return of 388%. And the environmental benefits provided to local communities are even greater, with the value of their ecological contributions to cleaner water and air and abundant wildlife estimated at more than $32 billion.

These enormous benefits are not unique to the refuge system, for there are similar environmental and economic benefits from other federal lands. For instance, national forests provide approximately 20% of our water supply, with that number rising to 50% or more in 11 western states. Some 180 million people in over 68,000 communities rely on these forested lands to capture and filter their drinking water. Our national forests welcome more than 160 million visitors a year to more than 14,000 recreation sites, with thousands of miles of streams and trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders to enjoy. While national forests were once viewed primarily as two-by-four factories in the woods, their recreational and environmental benefits today now dwarf the benefits generated by traditional extractive uses like logging or mining.

The anti-government extremists that have occupied Malheur dismiss these environmental and economic benefits of our federal lands. They claim there is no authority under the Constitution for the federal government to own or reserve any land for national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, or the Bureau of Land Management. They also claim that Congress has no power under the Constitution to pass laws governing the conservation and management of these lands. Instead, they would transfer ownership of federal lands to the states or private economic interests.

This has me wondering what Constitution they could possibly be referring to since it is clearly not ours. Going all the way back to 1897, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the Constitutional power of Congress and federal land management agencies to adopt measures necessary to protect federal lands and their natural resources. Thus, Malheur malcontents notwithstanding, the authority of the Forest Service or Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt conservation restrictions to protect these lands is beyond serious dispute.

Clearly, the militants at Malheur are clinging to an economic vision of the West that passed them by long ago. Locked in a time warp from the early 1900's, they still view our public lands as ATM machines for unsustainable economic uses and exploitation. Fortunately, Congress and the American public abandoned that mindset and developed a broader vision for our public lands, giving greater weight to the environmental and recreational benefits that they provide to the public.

This shift in Congressional thinking is best reflected in current statutory guidance for the management of the National Wildlife Refuge System. During a House of Representatives floor debate in 1975, refuge system supporters touted activities like logging, grazing or oil and gas development that could take place within wildlife refuges. Twenty-one years later, however, the passage of the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997, signaled a sea change in articulating its priorities and purposes. Passing the House 407-1, this law established with stark clarity that the mission of the refuge system first and foremost was to secure the conservation and restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources on refuge lands. Priority public uses were also established involving compatible wildlife dependent recreational activities like wildlife observation and photography, hunting and fishing. Contrary to the debate in 1975, in 1997 extractive industry activities were no longer encouraged or viewed as a priority, a dramatic shift in Congressional wildlife refuge policy.

Which takes me back to the armed takeover of Malheur. Let's be clear. The illegal occupiers of that wildlife refuge have neither a Constitutional nor a statutory basis to justify their occupation and violation of the rule of law. Nor do they have any economic "rights" that are being violated on Malheur since neither the Constitution nor refuge law has accorded them such "rights." Instead, they are illegally using and consuming taxpayer provided resources intended for the conservation of wildlife. More hypocritically, they are simultaneously blocking the "right" of their fellow citizens to the use and enjoyment of that refuge. It is particularly ironic that they chose Malheur as a symbol of alleged federal tyranny since the refuge has a well-earned reputation of working closely with the local community to find common ground on refuge management issues.

It is time for the media to quit providing a willing forum for the extremist and delusional views of the armed law breakers at Malheur. It is time they call them out for what they are - criminals who are stealing Roosevelt's gift of the refuge system from the American public. This tragedy has gone on long enough. It is time to return America's land to the American people.