When I heard the news that an armed militia had taken over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and was demanding that the government turn the public land over to private hands, I wasn’t surprised. With anti-government sentiment on the extreme right at a disturbing high and Tea Party presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio proudly proclaiming how they would cut down the federal government if elected, right-wing protests of this nature seem inevitable, if not long overdue. For decades, pundits on Fox News have been shouting that the private sector is more efficient and that public programs and property would be better off under their control. Now this rhetoric has resulted in dangerous action that local residents are afraid will escalate into violence.
While this “protest” might seem comical—militia members told reporters that they were planning to remain at the refuge indefinitely but couldn’t seem to plan far enough ahead to bring snacks—it betrays a worrisome trend in American culture in which collective property, and by extension the collective good, is disregarded in favor of private profit. Ammon Bundy, leader of the militia group, wants 300 square miles of the wildlife refuge to be opened up to ranching, mining, and logging. Environmentalists, however, are defending the public preservation of the refuge so that the land can be a safe haven for migrating species of birds as well as other plants and animals whose ecosystems would be damaged by these human activities. Though Ammon Bundy (son of Cliven Bundy, who’s pulled similar stunts to spite the government) claims he’s acting on behalf of local ranchers, federal programs already permit ranchers to graze on public land. Ostensibly, Ammon Bundy was outraged when two Oregon ranchers, Steven and Dwight Hammond were convicted of arson after a fire they lit on their property spread to the refuge. However, Ammon Bundy is from Arizona, not Oregon, and Oregon ranchers, including the Hammond family, told CBS News that they don’t want the militia there. Despite the community decrying his actions, as of this writing Bundy and his collaborators show no signs of leaving.
At least some of Ammon Bundy’s intentions can be explained by his religious beliefs. He claims his actions were inspired by prayer, during which he discovered that “the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds.” He also defended his occupation by saying, “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do.” In appealing to a higher power to justify his actions and dismiss the federal government, Bundy’s hardly alone. The Christian right in the United States has a considerable history of promoting privatization in the name of God. The New York Daily News notes that the Mormon Church has a history of openly defying the government, sometimes even violently, though the Church of the Latter Day Saints has officially denounced Bundy.
Despite the claims of Bundy and his ilk, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is our land. That is, it’s public land that has been set aside by the federal government for the use and enjoyment of everyone in the United States. Our National Wildlife Refuge system protects thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which are endangered. The land may be used by hunters, fishers, photographers, hikers, and anyone else who wishes to appreciate our nation’s natural beauty. Many humanists care deeply about the environment, and our system of wildlife refuges is one way in which we can preserve our country’s land. The national wildlife service provides educational resources for conservation and sustainability that are also invaluable to our country as a whole. We must not let bullies like the Bundys turn our land into their land, and we must be vigilant against those on the religious right who would take more than just 300 square miles from the public purely for profit.