Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, recently suggested that federal public land management decisions are made in a vacuum in Washington. He stated that decisions are made without input from local communities. Perhaps most troubling, he implies that federal land management agencies, i.e. the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, take on the characteristics of "Top-down Soviet-style centralized bureaucracies …" that are "known to fail."
As a retired Wildlife Service employee of 38 years, I take issue with Bishop's assertions. Employees of the National Wildlife Refuge System, at the field level or in Washington, are well-trained, honest and conscientious civil servants who take the oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Irrespective of where they work, they do their jobs consistent with the laws and regulations of our nation.
Refuge System employees live, work and contribute to the welfare of their communities. They buy homes, vehicles, clothes and groceries in their communities. Their children attend local schools and their families volunteer and attend church of their chosen denomination. Most take their civic responsibilities seriously and serve to advance community interests. They seek to ensure that their lives and Refuge System lands become woven into the fabric of the communities in which they reside.
Contrary to what Bishop would like us to believe, Refuge System employees have long sought input from local stakeholders, even more so after the passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, which mandated public involvement to create management plans for every refuge in the system.
The act provided Refuge System managers considerable responsibility and latitude in working with neighbors, commercial interests and local communities to advance Refuge System objectives. Examples include cattle grazing to improve grasslands, selective timber harvest, environmental education for local schools, birding festivals, youth fishing, hunting opportunities for the disabled and photography programs. The ideas, energy and funding for many of these activities originate within the local communities and are implemented by local staff, local volunteers and local friends groups.
In the wake of the illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, it is ironic and arguably dangerous that Bishop would use inflammatory language to associate the hard work and dedication of federal employees at any level with "Soviet-style" bureaucracies. This language only complicates the job of field-level employees and increases the risk to them and their families.
Recent history attests to the existence of a radical fringe that feeds off anti-government conspiracy theories and threatens anyone perceived to get in their way. One only needs to recall the photographs of self-styled militias leveling their military-style rifles on federal officers during the Cliven Bundy standoff in 2014.
Likewise, the tragic death of one of the Malheur NWR occupiers is perhaps a byproduct of elevated anti-government fervor. If Bishop is truly committed to solving problems, perhaps he can refrain from using inflammatory words and insinuations that affect the health and safety of federal employees and their families, communities in which federal employees reside and innocent bystanders who become victims of the anti-government fervor.1 comment on this story
President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the value of public lands and built a legacy of protecting them. He recognized that public land use decisions, if left in the hands of local communities alone, would succumb to short-term economic exploitation resulting in the destruction of natural and cultural resources through the privatization of public lands.
Given a choice between Roosevelt's vision of public lands for present and future generations versus privatizing federal lands, there is really no choice at all.
Geoffrey Haskett is the president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. He retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 after serving for 38 years in leadership positions including the regional director for Alaska (2008-2016) and chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System (2005-2008).