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Tina Casey headshot

CSR Lessons from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Takeover

By Tina Casey

By now the world knows that a group of self-styled patriots has taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. While these fearless lovers of the Constitution came prepared with guns, ammunition and camo, it appears that they brought little else to prepare for a long-term siege. No, we're not talking about the conspicuous lack of food, fuel, blankets and other vital supplies to hold a remote outpost in the freezing Oregon winter against the full weight and might of federal, state and local authorities. What's really conspicuous is the lack of a plan for rallying support to their cause.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the Malheur takeover from a corporate social responsibility perspective. The whole point of CSR is to break open the conventional boundaries of a company's relationship with its consumers, workers and supply chain, and with society at large. In doing so, CSR can also act as a guide to effective social action by groups of citizens, too.

ALEC, Koch Industries and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge land grab

When you take a look at the Malhuer occupiers through a CSR lens, the nut of the problem immediately becomes apparent. While styling themselves as an independent, grassroots activist group, the Malheur occupiers have been acting more like a front group for ALEC (the Koch-supported American Legislative Exchange Council, a business-friendly lobbying group that has become notorious for its extremist positions on gun rights and other right-wing causes).

ALEC's primary strategy is to produce boilerplate state legislation, and over the past several years its positions have become so extreme and out of step with CSR trends that it has lost scores of major corporate members, including many legacy brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

To understand the ALEC connection, consider that the Malheur takeover has been engineered by Ammon Bundy, son of the now-notorious Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. Using state's rights as an excuse, the elder Bundy has been openly plundering public grazing lands for a generation, culminating in a narrowly avoided shootout in 2014 year when federal agents attempted to enforce a series of legal findings against him. Confronted by Cliven and his armed enforcers, the agents backed off. Since then, action against Cliven and his supporters is still in a holding pattern.

The Cliven Bundy episode was not a one-off. In April 2014, Vice.com editor Grace Wyler described a broader movement to transfer public lands to private ownership, anticipating the Malheur takeover in an article entitled An Armed Standoff in Nevada Is Only the Beginning for America’s Right-Wing Militias. Do read the full article for a detailed look at the national implications, but for those of you on the go, here's the money quote:

"Bundy’s larger point — that the feds shouldn’t own 80 percent of the land in Nevada, or nearly 50 percent of land in 11 Western states — demonstrates the long-running tension over state’s rights and federal land-use policies that invariably pick winners and losers among environmental and business interests."

Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona explicitly connected the dots between ALEC and Bundy's states-rights justification back in 2014, requesting that the U.S. Inspector General look into possible lobbying violations related to ALEC's "undue influence" over federal land management. In his request, Grijalva specifically cited Bundy's claim that Nevada has a "strong moral claim" to federal land within its borders.

Following up on those points, in February 2015 reporter Christopher Ketcham took a deep-dive into the ALEC connection for Harper's under the title The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West. The article explores the roots of the land grab movement in the early 20th century, as federal control over the conservation of public lands consolidated. Business interests pushed back on a states-rights platform as a stepping stone to private ownership. Ketcham cites a historian's recap of the situation that reads straight out of the modern ALEC playbook:

"... The public lands 'are first to be transferred to the states on the fully justified assumption that if there should be a state government not wholly compliant to the desires of stockgrowers, it could be pressured into compliance ... '”

CSR lessons from unintentional teachers

That brings us back around to the Malheur takeover. Considering the ALEC connection, it's no accident that Ammon Bundy and his followers are doing everything wrong from a "people, planet, profit" perspective, to the point that even the folks over at ALEC must be shaking their heads at the group's missteps.

We're still waiting for a statement of disapproval from ALEC regarding the takeover -- after all, it certainly undermines all the hard work ALEC has put into gun rights when those guns are put to use illegally by "good guys." In the meantime, it's telling that several Republican presidential candidates have officially expressed their opposition to the Malheur takeover, even though they are staunch gun advocates who went out of their way to express support for Cliven Bundy during and after the 2014 episode.

With all this in mind, let's tote up the CSR "people, planet, profit" lessons in reverse order.

Profit: This is the only point on which the Bundy group has expressed some degree of clarity. On rather vague terms (more on that later), Ammon Bundy has a stated goal of turning the Malheur Refuge over to ranchers, miners and other businesses, who presumably would turn a profit from their enterprises, enabling local employment to grow.

That’s all well and good, but the devil is in the details. For example, for "ranchers" the Bundy plan could include recreational ranchers who may be interested in preserving wildlife habitat for paying guests to shoot, as well as factory farms, sheep farms, or any number of other livestock operations that would not necessarily co-exist nicely with existing businesses.

Another thing to consider is who profits. For example in the case of miners, the Bundy plan could include global businesses like the Pebble Mine Co., which is fighting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to build a copper mine in Alaska that would impact an important fishery -- a project like that would certainly be at odds with existing interests.

In other words, while Bundy’s plan could help create new jobs, it could also spell disaster for existing stakeholders.

2. Planet: Greenwashing doesn't really belong in the CSR category, but in a case like the Malheur takeover it's the only option. When you invade a public conservation area for the purpose of turning it over to private-sector activities that have a history of environmental degradation, it would helpful to provide for some sort of offsetting action -- greenwashing, if you will -- as a means of screening bad behavior and deflecting negative publicity.

3. People: When companies set out to engage in CSR projects, they usually don’t just barge in with a good idea. Ideally they do their homework, identify local needs, and work with local stakeholders to develop effective projects.

As a corollary, groups that go into local communities need to be self-sustaining or operate in such a way that does not impose new burdens on local residents.

With a group consisting only of out-of-state membership, clearly Ammon Bundy should have done his homework before traveling to another state to make a point.

While some in the nearby town of Burns have voiced general support for the group’s aims (more on that in a bit), others are confused about the messaging, and the overwhelming sentiment is that Bundy and his group should pack up and leave.

Those in opposition include the Bundy group’s intended direct beneficiaries, Dwight and Steven Hammond, as well as local residents and ranchers, at least one of whom has accused the Bundy group of undermining years of work between local stakeholders and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The Bundy group’s goals, consisting of a vaguely-stated desire to transfer control of the Malheur Refuge to private enterprise, also completely overlook a critical group of stakeholders: Native Americans -- namely, members of the Paiute tribe whose ancestors occupied the region for thousands of years. Naturally, they are also calling for the Bundy group to go home.

On top of that, by ignoring the local sheriff's repeated calls for the the Bundy group to leave, the Malhuer occupiers have undermined the emerging far-right "constitutional sheriff" movement, which claims that the office of the county sheriff is the only legitimate authority in the United States.

While the connection to ALEC may not be a direct one, the constitutional sheriff movement was at play in the 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff, and it is consistent with ALEC's goals of undermining federal authority.

To sum up, Ammon Bundy and his followers appear to have alienated every single group they purport to help -- except, perhaps, for Twitter fans.

Image credit (screenshot): U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey