We “took over” Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for one beautiful late October morning when we were the only visitors. The photographs here were taken during those enchanted hours.
The spicy scent of sagebrush fills the morning air. Mist rises from wetlands teeming with waterfowl. A Coyote trots across a meadow with a purposeful gait. In a burst of energy a cloud of thousands of dazzling white Ross’s Geese take to the air in a frenzy, only to settle back down a minute later. The quiet returns.
These are among my fond memories of Malheur, based on numerous trips to the remote wildlife refuge over the last 25 years. Malheur and its setting is a slice of the old West, quiet and sparsely populated and much loved by residents and visitors alike.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” This immediately followed an era in which plume hunters killed all the Great Egrets in the Malheur area in order to obtain feathers for a women’s hat craze of the era. Which, of course, illustrates why regulation of natural resource harvests came to be: if everyone has unlimited access to harvest what they want, the resource inevitably disappears. This has been true of virgin forests, Passenger Pigeons, whales, Beaver, and every other form of nature that has an economic value.
Prior to the refuge, Indians inhabited the Malheur region for 15,000+ years, leaving evidence of their camps and graves in what became the refuge headquarters area. Eventually, Malheur became a case study in mistreatment of Indians: a Malheur Reservation was created by the federal government in the 19th Century, but that was followed by a chipping away of the reservation to give land to settlers. Treaty hunting and fishing rights were abrogated. Eventually, the whole tribe was forced to march in snowy weather, without enough food, over two mountain ranges all the way to the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Many died along the march and in their years of exile. A sad and typical tale of mistreatment of our first peoples.
The Great Depression hit America with an iron fist. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt responded with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program to put young people to work on conservation projects all around America. Shortly after that, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge received three CCC camps, and over 1,000 young men worked on the refuge over seven years. They built dikes and dams and roads and fences. They constructed four fire towers, quarried the stone and built the beautiful headquarters buildings, and started Page Springs Campground. Every visitor today can see the dramatic results.
For all its conservation accomplishments, the CCC also had a major economic impact upon Burns and other surrounding communities by spending $15,000 per month in those towns on supplies, rentals, and payroll. It was a win/win for everyone involved. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was in giving young men jobs at a time of near-hopelessness; this instilled a work ethic in these young men, who later became the heroes who won World War II.
In sum, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the preeminent conservation success stories in America, with two of my favorite presidents–Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt–contributing to its success. Over the decades, Malheur became a legendary location for birders and other outdoor recreationists, including hunters and fishermen. I consider it one of my favorite landscapes in North America, blessed by its remoteness, beauty, silence, and wildlife. People of the region came to love it, and there was a good agreement on a management plan that was hammered out between ranchers, naturalists, hunters, and other stakeholders that was considered a model for refuges across America.
Then came the Bundy occupation of the refuge in the first days of 2016. A group of armed state’s-rights zealots took over the refuge headquarters, and occupied the beautiful CCC buildings for over a month before finally leaving. Their occupation disrupted the good work of the refuge, created division across America, made a mess of the place, and included thefts of equipment. One occupier died while reaching for a gun at a roadblock. For all this, a runaway and misguided jury refused to convict the perpetrators on a single count–a travesty of justice that still makes me incredibly bitter.
There is a movement in rural parts of the West to give away our national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal lands to the states. Why? Because many people want local control of the land so that they can clear cut more timber, strip mine more coal, loosen environmental regulations, and hunt, graze, fish, and trap to their heart’s delight. I vehemently disagree.
If states were given the land, they would sell off much of it to private companies, and access by hunters, hikers, fishermen, and other recreationists would be either denied or made expensive. For example, on Weyerhaeuser land in Washington State, access that was once free or low-cost has now become expensive, with a family camping permit for a year costing $300: Weyerhaeuser Fees 2016. If land was sold off by the states, we would end up with a patchwork of permit systems that would be costly for families to access the land. I can understand the position of Weyerhaeuser: before the permit system, they had a lot of cases of illegal dumping and vandalism on their land–just as we would have in the national forests if there were no rangers on patrol.
I also have concerns about potential subdivisions in the forest. If land was sold off to developers, many of our beautiful forests and lake shores would become housing developments–nice for those who live there but a blight on the landscape for those of us used to the expanses of natural beauty we now enjoy–and that we now own. Who would pay for fire suppression for all these new developments? The federal government? I can’t see the states doing it and I certainly don’t think that the owners of these forest homes would want to pay the thousands of dollars per year for each home to have special fire insurance to fund large scale firefighting efforts. So I suspect that the Forest Service would end up providing free firefighting services to save homes all across the West.
These lands represent our national heritage, and belong to all of us. We paid for them and have cared for them for over 100 years. When people say that local people could manage the land better than professional rangers, foresters, wildlife managers, and other biologists, what they are really saying is that they want to make money by taking timber, minerals, and grazing at little or no cost to themselves.
For example, Cliven Bundy has grazed his cows on federal land for years and refuses to pay the over $1 million in fees that have accrued since the 1990s. He thinks that he should be able to graze his cattle on public land for free. Anyone who has been paying attention to the conservation battles of the last century knows that where there are limited resources–in Bundy’s case, grass for his cattle–unlimited and unregulated use will inevitably ruin the resource. That’s why we have grazing allotments that ranchers pay for, and why we have professional grazing managers to determine how much grazing the land itself can allow.
This is a sad new chapter in our history; anyone who wants to read more about it can refer to the links at the bottom of the weblog. I, for one, intend to stand with our finest conservation presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, to preserve our shared national heritage.
But enough about armed thugs and their bad ideas. Malheur is still there, with its vibrant beauty ready to overwhelm visitors. We were heading home from an extended southwestern trip in November of 2016, long after the occupation had ended but before the headquarters reopened to visitors. Unarmed, except with cameras, we took over the refuge for a morning, as we were virtually the only people enjoying its silent vastness. The photographs here are all from that brief time in a Shangri La of the old west, during our enchanted takeover.
To view more work by photographer Lee Rentz, go to Lee Rentz Photography. Photographs are available for licensing.