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News / Northwest

Oregon occupiers want the land back in private hands; here’s why that could be bad for both the environment and humans

By Chelsea Harvey, Special To The Washington Post
Published: January 9, 2016, 3:18pm

The illegal occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Burns, has stretched on for nearly a week now, with the armed occupiers insisting Wednesday that they felt it was still “not quite time” to go home yet. From the start, the occupation has been a clear protest of federal control over the land, and the message has been simple: Return Western lands to private ownership.

It’s a battle that has been waged in various forms for more than a century. But some experts say that if the protesters were to actually get what they want, and the land was turned over for conversion into farmland or ranchland, the results could be ruinous – not just for the wild plants and animals that call the land home, but for the humans living in the area as well.

That’s because Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, along with much of the surrounding area, performs a variety of important ecosystem services, experts say. The refuge’s importance to wildlife in its current form is clear: It’s home to more than 300 bird species, nearly 60 mammal species and a variety of fish, reptiles and amphibians. Its 120,000 acres of wetland habitat comprise an important stopover for migratory birds.

But maintaining these habitats in their current state is a boon to humans, too, in a number of ways.

• • •

First, it’s important to note that the Malheur refuge and surrounding area has a unique cultural significance the raises a number of ethical questions about the idea of turning it over to private ownership. The region’s original residents were the native Paiute people, whom settlers later forced off the land and into a reservation.

Today, the Burns Paiute reservation is separate from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but both are considered ancestral land by the Paiute people. Members of the tribe have made it clear at recent local public meetings that the land has special cultural significance, is still considered Paiute property, and that the protesters have no right to seize it.

Many others have protested the occupiers’ goal of returning the land to the people by pointing out that it already belongs to the public. And, in fact, one of the most obvious ecosystem services performed by Malheur – and, indeed, most federally owned lands – is the opportunity for learning and recreation by making natural landscapes accessible to anyone.

Birding, hunting, fishing and photographing wildlife are some of the popular activities at Malheur. And, in fact, the very bunkhouses that are currently under illegal occupation at Malheur frequently “house birdwatching groups from all over the world,” said Paul Henson, state supervisor of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife office.

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He also added that the refuge is frequented by groups of schoolchildren on educational field trips, and that the facilities are also used by scientists conducting studies in the area. Should the land be given over to private use, these activities would likely no longer be possible.

• • •

There are certain environmental services provided by the natural landscape that also benefit human health and safety, Henson said. The complex network of wetlands that characterize the region are an important drainage system, crucial to local flood control.

“Probably one of the most important ecosystem services a lot of our national wildlife refuges provide, certainly ones associated with dynamic hydrological systems, (is that) they provide flood storage and flood protection,” Henson said. “When you have these high-water events. . . that water has to go somewhere, and it’s better that it goes to these open spaces that are well-managed for wetland and water storage than onto people’s property and homes.”

If the land were to be drained for agricultural use, this important service could be disrupted, and people in the surrounding areas could suffer. In addition, wetlands in general are important for nutrient cycling, helping to break down organic matter, such as decaying plants, and transport their important nutrients to ecosystems downstream.

This means preserving wetlands in their natural states can actually be a boon to private landowners further downstream, providing “huge ecological benefits and huge economic benefits for the folks that are running cattle down on those floodplains,” said Paul Englemeyer, central coast preserve manager at The Wetlands Conservancy, an Oregon-based advocacy group.

• • •

One of the most important, but commonly overlooked, ecosystem services provided by natural landscapes is their ability to store carbon, thereby preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. The habitats prominent at Malheur are significant in their ability to carry out this process.

Forests in the region are “tremendous carbon storage machines,” Henson noted. “The Pacific Northwest is about the best there is in the world.”

Wetlands, too, are notable for their ability to sequester carbon. “Wetlands store tremendous amounts of carbon in their kind of decomposed plant material that’s stored under the water,” Henson said. “The refuge being a large area of mostly wetlands provides a tremendous service in that regard.”

So conversion of these lands for agriculture – whether by cutting down forests or draining wetlands – can have climatic consequences as well. “When you modify (the land), you have a ripple effect, a negative ripple effect,” Englemeyer said. “You’ve got the standing carbon that is then gone.”

This is also to say nothing of the high carbon footprint associated with agriculture itself, and particularly cattle ranching. Agriculture accounts for nearly 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Methane belched by cattle is a large component of these emissions, and cattle typically require large amounts of land and food resources to boot.

• • •

However, this is not to say that agricultural and environmental interests can’t coexist, Henson said. In fact, one of the values of keeping areas such as the Malheur refuge under federal control is that it then becomes easier to have collaborative conversations with multiple interest groups about the management of the land.

Henson pointed to the Malheur refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), which was completed in 2013 after several years of discussions involving ranchers, conservation groups, scientists, recreationists and local citizens. The plan allows for many different types of uses of the land within the boundaries of carefully drafted regulations designed to protect the landscape.

One notable allowance, Henson pointed out, is that ranchers can obtain permits to graze livestock on the refuge. In this way, agricultural interests are still considered, even while the land remains under federal management. In the meantime, all of the aforementioned interests and uses are also protected.

“If these areas were privatized and . . . say one rancher had access, those areas would not be available for all those other uses,” Henson said.

He emphasized that cooperation with ranchers is important for good conservation practices in the area. “I will tell you one of our fundamental goals is that we need ranchers to stay ranching for good conservation,” Henson said. “We need them there to help protect habitat, to help fight fires, to help remove invasive species. Everything we do. . .is very sensitive to that issue.”

Struggles between private landowners and the government have emerged again and again in Oregon and elsewhere in the Western states, with federal management decisions – often those made in the name of environmental interests, such as protecting endangered species – frequently conflicting with the wishes of local landowners. Recent tension over the potential endangered species designation of the sage grouse, which ultimately did not receive federal protection, is one prime example of such competing interests.

Regardless, protecting a variety of other interests, including environmental, remains vital to all kinds of other people. And as Englemeyer pointed out, Malheur’s history is a testament to the consequences of poor management. The idea for a protected area in the region first arose in the early 20th century, after plume hunters had ravaged North American bird populations in pursuit of feathers to be used by the hat-making industry.

So the refuge first began as a haven for birds, although it’s expanded over the decades into its current 187,000-acre form. But as many have pointed out, its current benefits extend far beyond the habitat it offers for wildlife, providing a wide variety of cultural, recreational, ecological and even economic benefits for the diverse range of people who call the area home.