Editors note: since this was written, several leaders of the takeover including the Ammon Bundy have been taken into Federal custody while Robert Finicum was killed in a shootout with police.  Ammon Bundy issued a statement through his attorney urging the remaining followers to leave the refuge.  So far, they have refused.

An armed militia has taken hostage public property belonging to the American people. And for some reason, after three weeks of armed occupation, these anti-government protesters who have illegally broken into and refused to leave federally owned property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon have yet to be held accountable for their actions. It’s time for this charade to end, and for these criminals to be arrested and prosecuted.

Public land, especially in western states, is at the core of outdoor recreation. Hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, trail riders and so many more user groups are afforded the opportunity to participate in their preferred pastimes, because our government holds in trust lands for public use. Even though the land is public, many users still happily pay to use the land for certain activities like hunting and camping. But this small group of armed occupiers think ranchers shouldn’t have to pay to graze livestock on the same lands. Actually, they don’t think the land should even be public. They think it should be privatized and closed off from use by folks like you and me.

Sadly, there has always been a small but vocal contingent of society who opposes public property that is set aside to benefit all people in perpetuity. They see public ownership of land as an obstacle to furthering commerce, instead of what it really is, which is the conservation of open space and natural resources for enjoyment by current and future generations. The worst among the anti-public lands people simply refuse to follow the law and refuse to pay for using land that belongs to all of us.

The armed occupiers of Malheur claim to be rallying around local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who are serving jail time for arson on public lands. The father and son committed a crime and a jury of their peers convicted them. During their trial, numerous witnesses, including a relative, testified the Hammonds set the fire to cover up poaching activities. The Hammonds peacefully and responsibly reported to jail, and have since publically stated they do not welcome the occupiers and do not want them there. Very few of the locals do.

The occupiers are led by Ammon Bundy, whose family was involved in a 2014 armed standoff with the government over Bureau of Land Management grazing rights. The Bundy family reportedly owes more than a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees to the federal government, and they don’t want to pay their bill. Bundy has stated that the occupiers plan to stay at the refuge indefinitely, or until the land is turned over to local authorities.

On January 4th, the FBI released a written statement that said it “is working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and other local and state law enforcement agencies to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

Now, over two weeks later, it appears no progress has been made in removing the armed occupiers and with each passing day they continue to set an example that a hostile takeover of federally owned public property is acceptable behavior by those who wish to not pay what they owe. While everyone hopes a peaceful resolution is reached, these occupiers cannot be allowed to continue holding hostage what rightfully belongs to all Americans.

Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an Arizona rancher who is recognized as one of the leaders of the occupation, has stopped paying federal grazing fees and is working to convince other ranchers to follow suit. What would happen to you or I if we decided to takeover federally owned property with an armed militia to protest our disdain for the government? Why are these occupiers being allowed to continue this illegal activity? How much is this occupation costing taxpayers to have law enforcement monitoring the situation?

One of the responsibilities of our government is to protect federal lands from people like Finicum and his followers who selfishly take for themselves what belongs to all of us. No one is taking money out of his pocket. But by refusing to pay to graze cattle on public lands, he is the one taking money out of all of ours.

“The individuals responsible for the Malheur Refuge occupation need to be held legally responsible for their actions. And the radical politicians calling for the wholesale transfer of public land need to recognize their own responsibility for fueling this undemocratic, criminal behavior. The anti-public land and anti-government rhetoric has to stop,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Hopefully some good will come of all of this, when the occupation backfires by raising awareness of the rogue behavior of a small set of anti-government radicals who feel it is right to steal from the rest of us. Maybe it will wake people up to the fact that our public lands are under attack. These occupiers need to be immediately removed, and all of us who love and appreciate having open space on which to enjoy the natural resources of America need to come together in strong support of our public lands.

Brandon Butler
Long-time outdoor writer and native Hoosier Brandon Butler lives in Missouri and serves as the Executive Director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. Previously, he worked with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources as Governor Mitch Daniels’ liaison to the department, Director of Sales and Marketing for Dominator365 and as the Marketing Manager Battenfeld Technologies, Inc.


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