As we mark the end of a six-week standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge, it’s important that we return our focus to finding collaborative ways to use and protect our country’s natural resources.
Armed protesters seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early January, citing grievances such as grazing restrictions on public lands and the prison sentences of two ranchers. The ensuing standoff created a national narrative about illegal seizure of public lands and using firearms as negotiating tools.
Although this incident shines a light on the challenges of sharing and managing natural resources in fair and responsible ways, we should not let it overshadow the bigger story—the story of successful collaboration to conserve our country’s natural heritage.
Malheur—a mecca for birdwatchers, fishermen, hunters and hikers—is also a place where ranchers, government and organizations like the Nature Conservancy (TNC) are working together to maintain both a way of life and the health of the land.
For example, these partners in 2013 helped establish a 15-year management plan that allows authorized ranchers to graze their cattle on the refuge. Not only does this maintain the ranchers’ livelihoods, but it also benefits the land—the grazing gets rid of invasive weeds that damage wildlife habitat.
For decades, ranchers, state and federal agencies, rural communities and environmental organizations like TNC have worked together to collaboratively conserve America’s lands, waters and wildlife in ways that benefit everyone involved.
These types of cooperative partnerships exist in every state, and ranchers often play a key role. Six of every 10 acres in the lower 48 states are privately owned. The source of half our nation’s water supply, these properties also provide habitat for two-thirds of our threatened and endangered species. Without good stewardship of these private lands, the natural benefits they provide would disappear.
Take the Southwest, for instance, where ranchers in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico collaborate with TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and academic researchers through the Malpai Borderlands Group. The group works to protect natural processes and landscapes to help humans, plants and animals thrive. That means encouraging profitable ranching and other traditional livelihoods that will maintain open space for generations to come.
The group also created shared “grass banks” to feed livestock during times of drought and helped conserve more than 500 square miles of mountains and rangelands, protecting jaguars and other rare species.
Of course, other conservation groups besides TNC are making a big difference, too. In Montana, environmentalists, ranchers and others came together and helped create the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which conserves grizzly bear habitat while maintaining grazing rights for ranchers and access for hunters and anglers.
In Washington state, TNC works with timber partners, the Yakama and Colville tribes, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies and local communities to protect homes from severe fires, improve fish and wildlife habitat and provide jobs. This collaborative effort paid off last year when some of the coalition’s focus areas showed resilience in the face of record wildfires.
Although the Malheur occupation reminds us that there’s still work to be done, it also underscores the importance of understanding and respecting each other’s cultural, economic and environmental perspectives as we work together to protect our country’s lands and waters.