Federal land management made a rare appearance on the front page last week when a small group of armed anti-federalists seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Ore. While this raises numerous questions about the Second Amendment, the heart of the issue isn’t guns or militias, it’s the federal government’s management of the public domain: the millions of acres of land that are owned by all Americans.
And that’s the beauty — and the tragedy — of public lands management: these are “multiple use” lands, which must meet the many demands of a diverse public. Given that many people rely on these lands for many different needs, contrasting views are the norm when it comes to deciding how best to manage these places we all own. The federal government’s role is to ensure that no one value or use supersedes another and to ensure that by balancing how our land is used we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.
As joint owners of public lands, we want our local or favorite national forest, camping spot or hunting area to be managed in such a way that meets our specific needs — but those needs may be at odds with the wants or needs of my neighbor, who has a different idea about the “best” use of those same lands.
The dramatic situation unfolding in Oregon is a prime example of the need for the federal government to work closely and cooperatively with the people whose lives are affected by its regulatory decisions. When tensions rise, passions run high and things can quickly get out of hand (and become a proxy for entirely unrelated issues).
I have seen firsthand that working together toward common goals can achieve success for the land and the people who use it. For example, in the Malheur National Forest, just north of the current standoff, a group of diverse stakeholders called the Blue Mountains Forest Partners (including local elected officials, timber industry representatives, restoration contractors, ranchers, landowners, conservationists, researchers and the U.S. Forest Service) is working together to restore more than a million acres of federally managed land.
Together, this group helped to keep the county’s last remaining wood processing facility open, brought an additional $2.5 million annual federal investment to the Malheur National Forest, secured new state investment in forest restoration across Oregon, put loggers back to work and created a culture of science-based forest management. As a result, school enrollment is increasing, manufacturing is on the rise, and the forest is healthier and more resilient in the face of climate change.
This would not — could not — have happened without the dedication of people from the local community as well as supporters from across Oregon and elsewhere. It takes all of us to care for our public lands. We don’t always agree on how to get there, but the Blue Mountains Forest Partners do agree to work together to find the best solutions for the group.
This is important because the sorts of disputes happening in Oregon don’t show any signs of going away. If we can bring local groups together sooner, listen closely to their concerns and make every accommodation possible, we could stop these kinds of potentially violent episodes before they start.
We all hope the situation on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge — to the south of the great work occurring on the Malheur National Forest — can be defused before it sparks any violence. And in the best-case scenario, we can use it as an opportunity to discuss how we handle our collective inheritance, how the public treats its forests, and how individuals see their trees. We all want the same thing: a thriving country with beautiful land and prosperous people. By working together, we can both manage the forests and save the trees.
Susan Jane Brown is a staff attorney and director of the Western Environmental Law Center’s Wildlife & Wildlands Program. She is also a founding member and vice president of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners. Readers may send her mail at 216 Lincoln St. Eugene, Oregon 97401.
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