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Oregon Takeover Update: Birders Win, Thugs Lose


The law of unintended consequences is hard at work in the aftermath of the notorious occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, by Arizona businessman Ammon Bundy and his gang of armed thugs. Bundy accomplished none of his purported goals and is now behind bars facing serious criminal charges along with his cohorts.

Conservation: 1, Thugs: 0

Bundy's stated goal was to turn the refuge over to local ranchers, loggers and miners. But instead he set off a surge of public support for national parks in general and the Malheur refuge in particular.

After the occupation began, a pair of Oregon brothers started an online fundraiser for the refuge and three other groups that drew more than $135,000 in pledges. That was just the start.

In the latest development, Oregon's Bend Bulletin newspaper reports that the local conservation group Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge received $75,000 in new memberships and donations after the incident began early in January. The organization was also inundated with hundreds of new volunteer pledges.

Judging from a statement on the Friends of Malheur website, Bundy has re-invigorated the organization's mission:

"With the armed hostage-taking of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, our nation's wildlife refuges have been thrust into the spotlight. This illegal seizure has stripped us of our rights as American citizens to make memories at this wildlife refuge. This needs to stop. National wildlife refuges belong to ALL Americans and we want Malheur back. It's apparent that few are aware of the incredible benefits wildlife refuges provide to communities and the local economy."

Earlier this month, the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival at Malheur enjoyed a banner season with sell-out events. Local stakeholders attribute an increase in attendance to Bundy, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting:
Chelsea Harrison directs the Harney County Chamber of Commerce. She said an upside of the occupation is that it attracted new birders and visitors for the three-day festival. Registration is up significantly from last year.

“The name was out there, and it did help people realize that there’s a beautiful refuge here,” said Harrison.

According to Friends of Malheur, for each federal dollar appropriated to run the refuge, the local economy gains seven. The Migratory Bird Festival is an important seasonal economic driver for communities in and around the Malheur refuge, and its popularity demonstrates the extent to which Bundy was out of step with local interests.

Virtually no local stakeholder groups supported Bundy's actions. In fact, the public record indicates that local ranchers worked with the Bureau of Land Management to establish the Malheur refuge as a national model for successful business engagement with public conservation goals.

Bundy and unintended consequences

In another new development, Bundy appears to have prompted the U.S. Interior Department to launch a new study aimed at quantifying the economic benefits of conservation.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the new campaign in a speech at the National Geographic Society on April 19:

"By producing credible data on the tangible economic benefits of public lands, we can help the public and Members of Congress better understand the benefits of investing in them.

"Industry estimates show that consumer spending for outdoor recreation is greater than household utilities and pharmaceuticals combined – and yet the federal government has never fully recognized or quantified these benefits. This project is the start of a multi-year effort to count these contributions in a comprehensive and impartial way."

According to one study cited by the Interior Department, in 2012 the outdoor recreation industry generated $646 billion in economic activity and supported more than 6 million jobs.

More unintended consequences

The unintended consequences don't stop there. After Bundy was apprehended, he issued a jailhouse video plea for support that directly precipitated the arrest of his father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

The elder Bundy was previously sequestered on his home turf, avoiding the consequences of a massive armed standoff with federal agents after the Bureau of Land Management tried to remove his unauthorized "trespass cattle" from public land in Gold Butte, Nevada.

That area remains a no-go zone for federal workers due to the continued threat of armed violence, so the cattle are still in residence. However, Cliven Bundy is not. Prompted by his son, he flew to Oregon. The choice of air travel guaranteed that law enforcement officers could arrest him unarmed and harmless upon his arrival at Portland International Airport.

Through his belligerent approach, Ammon Bundy also revealed that the so-called "patriot" movement is a sham. This network, also known as the "militia" movement, advocates against federal law enforcement and argues that the county sheriff is the only local law authority recognized by the U.S. Constitution.

This "constitutional sheriff" theory is described in detail by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Here are some snippets circulated by the Independent American Party (not to be confused with the American Independent Party):

"The county sheriff is the line in the sand. The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, “Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.” This is not only within the scope of the sheriff’s authority, it’s the sheriff’s sworn duty."


"I would hope you would work to arm and train yourself, AND educate your Sheriff to his sworn oath of office and his duty to PROTECT and SERVE."

In the Malheur case, Bundy did attempt to "educate" Harney County Sheriff David Ward for weeks leading up to the occupation. When Ward refused to come over to his point of view, Bundy demonstrated that the "constitutional sheriff" theory is just that -- a theory. In practice, the "patriot" movement only recognizes certain sheriffs who enforce their interests.

A recent interview with Sheriff Ward reveals just how far the movement's practice is disconnected from their theory. A military veteran, Ward describes an elaborate campaign of harassment against himself, other officials and the local community -- including "saber rattling" and intimidation by Bundy's armed gang, as well an "Internet war" in which his emergency dispatch center was overwhelmed by calls.

The Spokesman-Review newspaper highlights one particularly revealing part of the interview:

During the standoff, Ward said, his primary concern was keeping innocent civilians out of the line of fire, because some of the militants stayed in town and continued to follow members of law enforcement and their families.

“It was a very trying time,” Ward said. “I looked over my shoulder during that time more than I did in Afghanistan and Somalia.”

As for the Bundys, their repeated requests for bail have been denied, as they are considered flight risks who would endanger the community.

Photo (altered): Sandhill cranes at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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