I thank the men, and decide to grab a coffee before I leave. As I pour my coffee, one of the men asks how my trip is going, and I tell them about how dry Malheur is, and how I’ve been spending more time on the roads between Burns and the refuge, where there had been lots of migrating wading birds. I mention the Black-necked Stilts, the American Avocets, the Willets and the White-faced Ibises.
Something about the juxtaposition of bringing up the birds and the irrigated fields south of Burns made the men want to talk about the occupation. While I sip my coffee, one of them says to the others, “Last week was the bird festival. More people came than ever before.”
Another says, “They wanted to see what the fuss was all about.”
“Apparently it was the biggest tourism weekend in Burns history.”
After a few minutes of everybody sharing opinions, one of the men says, “You know why Malheur is owned by the federal government in the first place?”
“Teddy Roosevelt wanted to protect egrets from plume hunters,” I reply, pleased with having done my homework.
“Sure, that’s true. But that’s not the whole story. In Roosevelt’s time, Malheur was just the lake. But after that, ranchers were irrigating and squatting all over the place. They used up all the water. They basically killed the whole place. Malheur was like a dust bowl. We pretty much know this fact in Harney County, but those men who stormed the refuge, they weren’t from here. They were from Arizona and Nevada. They had no idea what they were fighting against.”
Later, he says, “We have our beefs with the Bureau of Land Management, we have our beefs with the federal government. We have our beefs with environmentalists. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. The fact is, there are jobs in Burns and there is water in Malheur because we learned how to collaborate with the government. Without the refuge system, everybody was just suing everybody over their right to water that didn’t even exist anymore.”
I say goodbye to the men at the gas station, surprised by their forthrightness and outright giddiness over the subject of the occupation. I have been following the story of the Bundy family, who have been at the center of several protests over rancher’s rights since the nineties. In my view, the story of the Bundys has mirrored a growing hatred for conservation politics that has risen to an almost religious fervor among right-wing blogs and cable news networks, where it has swivelled into such a strange place that there is now a movement that wants to do away with all public parks in the country.
The Bundy family and their anti-public lands views have been popularized by Fox News, where these days, there is an almost constant violent undertone about public land management. I have no doubt that the out-of-state occupiers didn’t really understand the ranching issues of Southeastern Oregon. They barged in and threatened violence, and ultimately went to jail (and in one case died) first and foremost because they were victims of those violent and nonsensical whispers they hear from the television, the internet and the radio. They were led here by somebody else’s agenda.
The militants bungled their occupation so badly that they managed to do exactly the opposite of what they intended. By occupying the Malheur refuge, the militants unwittingly made the country, and the world, aware of the value of public land in the American west.
Today, I plan to drive north to south through the middle of the refuge on the just-opened Center Patrol Road. This road will give me access to miles of solitude, miles of sunny, marshy, beautiful Earth. The refuge wasn’t made for me, it is made to protect wildlife and habitat, but nevetheless, the fact that land is being preserved at record rates here in the American west, and in fact, around the world, makes the case that today is the start to the golden age of travel.
Travel is about being able to go places. It’s about access. The fact is, a side effect of the need to preserve and protect more land around the world means more of it is becomes accessible.
Today, travel is cheaper than ever before, and it’s easier for more types of people – women, young travelers, old travelers, minority travelers – to visit more of the planet than ever before. Only twenty years ago, the idea of a young woman, for example, traveling solo in a distant land, was novel and frowned upon. In what way does better airline food beat that?
And despite the isolated pockets of sensational violence we see in the news, today is the least violent era in world history. It is also the most prosperous, which means that places that were once inaccessible because of their poverty, are now open, safe, bustling with hotels and cafes.
There are anti-environmental movements around the world, who don’t believe in the value of conserving land or protecting species. Often, they look like the Malheur occupants – fervently religious and puppeteered by someone else’s message. But through their own incoherence, they are losing, and more land around the world is becoming both protected and accessible to travelers.
If there were no public land in Eastern Oregon, if it were all just ranchlands, as envisioned by the Bundys, why would we go?
The golden age of travel is not about leg room on a plane, it’s about access to the world. And today, driving in a vast, sunny, open public refuge, I am a happy traveler, riding through my land.