Before the federal government limited grazing at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, ranchers had turned the land to mud and cow shit.
Before the federal government limited grazing at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, ranchers had turned the land to "mud and cow shit." steve estvanik/

Since the Mahleur National Wildlife Refuge occupation began, there’s been a number of articles pointing out how deeply in the wrong these self-styled freedom fighters are. Dan pointed out white privilege, Sydney pointed out hypocrisy, and Charles pointed out capitalism.

But there is one more point to be made here: The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is also culturally significant. It isn’t federally protected because the government hates ranchers, it’s federally protected because the American people, like the Dixie Chicks, love wide-open spaces.

In statements to the media, Ammon Bundy, who heads the occupation, has made it clear that he considers the expansion of the wildlife refuge, and its shift away from allowing private citizens to use it for commercial activity, to be counter to the interests of the “people.”

This refuge—it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area. They are continuing to expand the refuge at the expense of the ranchers and miners.

This is about taking the correct stand without harming anybody to restore the land and resources to the people so people across the country can begin thriving again.

Bundy seems to assume that if the federal government let the ranchers manage their own affairs, we’d all be riding the gravy train to prosperity station.

But my dad worked on the refuge as a field archaeologist for five years in the 1970s, and he has a very different story to tell:

My first experience with cattle grazing on the refuge lands was in the south part of the refuge near Frenchglen. Several fields between the west side canal and the Donner und Blitzen River were being used for grazing. There were lots of cattle there. I think these cattle were from one of the larger ranches in the area, can’t say which one, but Roaring Springs Ranch comes to mind. The cattle had pretty much eaten just about all available vegetation there. These fields were merely mud and cow shit. It was ugly. We were not able to survey these fields for prehistoric sites until a few years later when the fields were not used for grazing.

As my dad recalls, this poor stewardship of the land was what drove the government to limit grazing and buy up ranches:

From that time, the refuge management has focused on running a wildlife refuge, not a ranch. They have tried to do this by trading some of the refuge property for ranch property that is adjacent to the main refuge body. That has caused some problems with ranchers who have owned their property for some time and are attached to it emotionally. They see the refuge land reorganization as land grabbing. This plus less access to grazing on refuge property has inflamed some. Also, grazing fees have been raised to incentivize less usage. Another reason for the ranchers to be pissed!

Bundy’s argument is dangerous because it attempts to reduce the issue to purely economic terms. Having spent many summers in Harney County, touring the refuge with my father—looking for petroglyphs, hiking the Steens, fishing his secret fishing hole, and generally getting a glimpse into his life as a young man—I can assure you that the value of the refuge goes far beyond its utility for grazing. It’s a fascinating place, and getting to see it through my dad’s eyes was a priceless experience.

I wonder if the occupiers ever stop to reflect upon the fact that, by staging an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge, they are effectively denying those rights to the refuge's thousands of yearly visitors.

My dad, his brother, and his best friend from college were planning on taking a trip down to the refuge soon to revisit their old stomping grounds. That trip has been indefinitely postponed because Bundy and his little band of misguided patriots are clinging to the notion that they’re fighting for the American people. What they’re really fighting for is the right to destroy a beautiful place.

The authors father, Robert Bogue (right), and his college friend Dave Barrios during the time Bogue worked at Malheur.
The author's father, Robert Bogue (right), and his college friend Dave Barrios during the time Bogue worked at Malheur. Courtesy of Robert Bogue