I take back the term “empathy.” I’m not even sure I’m sympathetic at this point. Over the weekend, after the completion of a peaceful protest by several hundred marchers in Burns, Oregon, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, “a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters.” Among the militants were three sons of Cliven Bundy. Major news networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and Fox, reported the event, several acknowledging that the unwelcome presence of the militia and the brothers.
The Bundy brothers were there to support the Hammond family, whose patriarch Lincoln and son Steven had recently been convicted of illegally setting two range fires and sentenced to the minimum of five years in prison. But, the demeanor of the Bundys is absolutely out of line. Though the brothers affirm that they are not “looking to hurt anyone,” they threaten violence if anyone threatens to remove them.
It is this position that places them outside the realm of empathy. Last summer, the High Country News investigated the incidents of violence against federal land management employees. In their efforts to protect their perceived rights–their unchanged access to public lands–they have dehumanized the personnel who strive to facilitate and regulate that access.
This is where I lose my grip on empathy. The nature of public lands, since their inception–first as property owned by the federal government under the Land Ordinance of 1785 (this predates the US Constitution itself) and then as property permitted under the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934)–necessitates collaboration. There are a wide array of interests represented on public lands, and all of these interests have legal and historical standing.
Public lands ranchers have a place on public lands, but they aren’t the only ones. Because of the multiple use concept, wildlife have shared equal footing with ranchers under the Taylor Grazing Act. As of the mid-1970s, wild horses and burros and outdoor recreationists receive similar consideration. And, the military has historically had more access to public lands than any of these groups. However, no one group is allowed to maintain exclusive control over this real estate. The nature of public lands and the multiple use concept which governs it necessitates collaboration and flexibility.
This seems to be what has been lost in the conversation: too many public lands users feel they are entitled to a majority share of those lands without consideration for other users. Some of this entitlement comes from their interpretation of what it means to be a historical user, some of it comes from the ways in which they interpret the very different pieces of legislation that govern public lands, and some of it is derived from the fact that private water rights provide powerful anchors to public lands use.
Even so, we all must work to accommodate each other on these lands–they are ours, what we have saved, both the iconic landscapes and the leftovers. If I have empathy for anyone at this point, it is for every single public lands rancher and official who strives with unending energy and patience to work out the kinks in pubic lands policy so that all can benefit.
Leisl Carr Childers is assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa and author of The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin.