Public Land Oppression

The editorial page of the conservative Washington Times newspaper accuses federal authorities of "oppression" in corralling protestors who were illegally occupying a national wildlife refuge.

Sorry, but the newspaper got it backwards. The "oppressor" moniker belongs to the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. These militants invoked a soundly rejected interpretation of the Constitution as justification for demanding that the federal government transfer management of virtually all of its lands to local control. In carrying out their siege, they committed a number of cardinal sins.

First off, the menacing anti-government trespassers denied access to the Refuge's rightful owners, namely the general public. Meanwhile, they proceeded to trash public property during their five weeks of occupation. Not only were bird watchers blocked from entry (more than 60,000 visit the site annually). Refuge management personnel were prevented from fulfilling their responsibilities, including curbing the influx of an invasive species of carp and controlling steam overflows. The Refuge's 125 employees were locked out of their jobs. Some were subjected to harassment by sympathizers of the anti-Washington movement, not an uncommon pattern for federal conservation employees in the West.

Moreover, the reign of intimidation extended well beyond the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The threat of copy-cat incursions by anti-federal government extremists prompted three western national wildlife refuges to beef up security in a big way. One facility, the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge near Cheney, Washington, actually closed its doors temporarily as a precaution.

What might be considered equally disquieting is that many Republican members of Congress, especially from western regions, expressed sympathy with the Refuge trespassers' objectives if not their lawless tactics. This rapport is in keeping with anti-big government GOP lawmakers' ideologically-driven agenda. It is an agenda that includes a politically correct generic contempt of federal bureaucrats.

Oddly enough, this disdain is not shared by the general public, at least in regard to federal land management personnel.

National Park Service and Wildlife Refuge employees are widely held in high esteem. Jobs in these agencies are especially coveted, undoubtedly bolstered by the popularity of the areas that receive protection. Even the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public open space with the most commercial activity and thus the most controversy, gets a green light from a majority of Americans.

Polls indicate the public overwhelmingly favors the federal government retaining management of its lands. It is not a surprise since a majority of Americans consider the federal government a better bet than state, local, or private interests to guarantee appropriate public access and wilderness preservation. As for dissatisfied ranchers and other commercial operators on public lands, the federal government grants them below cost usage privileges. It is a prima facie case that usually undermines their complaints in the eyes of the average citizen.

The bottom line -partisan demonization of the federal bureaucracy is essentially ideological scapegoating, and no more so than in the case of the federal land management agencies.