Thursday, January 14, 2016

Have You Hugged a Wildlife Refuge Lately?


My January volunteering adventures at Bosque del Apache NWR have been filled with lots of new and exciting things (such as seeing the Refuge covered by snow for the first time!)...


But it has also been a bit unnerving to be living on a National Wildlife Refuge as we watch and wait for the armed occupation at Malheur NWR to end as soon as possible.  Some of the volunteers and staff here have served and/or visited Malheur-- they have friends there, and know the potential impact this interruption is having on that Refuge's important work, and the migratory wildlife who rely on it.

As I perform my daily duties here at Bosque, a few questions lurk quietly in the back of my mind-- could a Malheur situation happen at another Refuge?  Could it happen here at Bosque?

Historian Wallace Stegner once called the national parks "the best idea we ever had.  Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

Our national parks enjoy tremendous popularity among both U.S. and foreign visitors.  2016 marks the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service (an achievement that will be marked by many great events).

National parks hosted nearly 300 million visits in 2014.  Many parks feature iconic vistas with drive-thru access, making them easy and popular destinations-- perhaps too popular as some would argue that our national parks are being "loved to death."

But on the other hand, with so many having visited a national park, many now have a stronger, more emotional bond to these parks than with those public lands they have yet to visit.

I'd venture to guess that most Americans would be rather shocked at how much public land we actually have.  We collectively own most of the Western United States and Alaska!  Some of this land is restricted from public visitation (such as Dept. of Defense missile testing ranges, and certain culturally significant areas of Indian tribal lands), but most of the rest is wide open and freely ready for each of us, it's owners, to visit.

I plan to do just that in 2016-- to visit as many National Wildlife Refuges and other public lands as I can.  Considering recent events, it seems more important than ever to visit and support them as soon as possible!


While I've loved many a national forest, BLM and USBR land, my heart belongs with our National Wildlife Refuge System.  Did you know that there are over 560 refuges across the U.S.?  Every state boasts at least one NWR, and an NWR can be found within 1 hour's drive of virtually every major metropolitan area in the U.S.



I visited my first wildlife refuge in 2004 (Seney NWR in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) as a spur-of-the-moment decision on my way from Chicago to Ontario for a summer camping vacation.  

The first surprise was not seeing an entrance fee booth (only about 100 NWRs charge an entrance fee, and even at that, they're usually far less than most other parks).  

Upon walking into the Visitor Center, I was greeted by a pair of friendly volunteers who gave me a map, advised what wildlife was currently being seen, and where the best photo hotspots might be.  Off I went for a magical morning with a few hundred trumpeter swans, loons, sandhill cranes, and a rich variety of other birds and wildlife.  Best of all, the place was not overrun with cars or tour buses (like many other parks can often be)-- Seney NWR was a far more peaceful and quiet place.  A place that more fully connected me to the wild, natural world that had been so missing in my life.

I had no idea such a vibrant habitat with such abundant wildlife existed outside of the far corners of a National Park, and felt almost as if I were stealing something to get so much enjoyment from a place while paying nothing in return.  I stopped by the Visitor Center again after my tour, found a small donation jar for the Friends of Seney group, and gladly shoved a few new bills in to show my support and appreciation!

Trumpeter Swans, Seney NWR, Michigan, 2004

Fast forward a dozen years, and here I now am, one of those Visitor Center volunteers myself, greeting visitors to Bosque del Apache NWR.  It never ceases to warm my heart when a new visitor returns after finishing their first tour to gush with enthusiasm upon discovering this special place.

I was struck by early news reports of the Malheur occupation of just how oblivious many in the media were to the role and benefit of each type of public land in the West.  They just seemed to "parrot" what the armed occupiers were telling them-- that somehow, this NWR (and the BLM lands surrounding it) were entirely shut-off from public access, grazing rights, or other opportunities for the local economy to prosper from the land, and that this band of out-of-state "militia" were now here to save the day (cowboy hats, guns, and all).  Nothing could be further from the truth!

Like most Wildlife Refuges, Malheur works very closely with the surrounding landowners and community to improve habitat for both "the birds and the herds" by controlling invasive plants and lowering the risk of damaging runaway wildfires.

Malheur also recently partnered with various community and state groups in a large and very ambitious project to remove millions of invasive carp and restore Malheur Lake.  In the process, this creates new commercial fishery opportunities for the local economy.



This week, with continued media attention, (and complete lack of any type of containment from law enforcement), the armed occupiers have grown emboldened to use Refuge vehicles, hack into Refuge computers and files, and cut fences protecting wildlife habitat and tribal burial sites from neighboring livestock. Even a group of right-wing lawmakers ignored law enforcement warnings to visit the scene and sympathize with the illegal intruders (while the Bundys' ultra-supportive home Rep from Nevada joined via phone).

It's enough to make those who volunteer, work,  and support our National Wildlife Refuges angered beyond belief!  But also, frankly, enough to make us a bit fearful too.

If a dozen misguided cowboys with guns can walk in and take over a wildlife refuge's visitor center so easily, what's to stop more self-styled "patriots" from doing the same next month from somewhere else?

The immediate answer is "not much."

Malheur NWR only has about 14 full-time employees.  Not enough to keep the Visitor Center open to the public on weekends during their non-peak winter season.  And, certainly not enough to guard its 187,000 acres of public land around-the-clock from trespassing wayward livestock or humans.

The situation at Bosque and other NWRs is much the same.  Staff size here is equally "bare-bones" (thanks to Federal budget cuts and sequestration).  While Bosque does benefit from having a very active Friends group, a large contingency of resident RV volunteers, and weekends that can top 500+ visitors per day during the peak winter season, the Refuge is a proverbial "ghost town" during the non-peak summer months (when most of the birds, visitors, and volunteers are away).

The simple truth is that these vast open lands, forests, lakes, and wildlife refuges are nearly as vulnerable today as they were a century or so ago when the original hard battles were fought to set aside and preserve these lands by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and so many others.

Malheur is a wake-up call to all of us who appreciate the need for clean, wild, open spaces-- if these lands are to remain public, they require continuous vigorous support from the American people.

The language of the armed Malheur occupiers eerily mimics that of some current members of Congress, including the current chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Republican Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah who announced the Federal Land Action Group last year, a right-wing posse of congressional reps who wish to "develop a legislative framework for transferring public land to local ownership and control" so that "these lands can be returned to their rightful owners." (obviously, not Native Americans we assume).

Unfortunately, this is not some "fringe" idea limited to a few crazed House members-- it has support in the Republican-controlled Senate as well where last year they voted 51-to-49 to dump all public lands (except National Parks/Monuments) to the states to let them lease out, sell, and trample them as they please.

Thankfully, none of these proposals have made it into law...at least, not yet.

If any good is to come from the Malheur occupation, I hope and pray that it is this-- that 2016 becomes the year the silent majority of Americans take back their Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and other public lands from the extremists (with guns and pens) who are so eager to dismantle them.

As an "action plan," I'm going to strive to do the following this year (and hope you will too!):
  • Visit (and photograph) as many National Wildlife Refuges and other Federal public lands as possible.  While I'll see a few National Parks along the way, they won't be centerpieces to my travels.  As lovely as they are, the world honestly doesn't need an extra thousand images a day of Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon.  But it sure could use more of our Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, Lakes, and BLM lands!-- the more we visit and use these lands, the more difficult it becomes for others to take them away from us.  Take a look at the maps above (and links below)-- plot a new course for your recreation time this year to visit these lands!
  • Learn more about YOUR public lands!  Here are website links to each public land agency that offers recreational opportunities.  Explore the many places you can go and things you can do on your Federal public lands!
  • Camp in Wild Places:  Benchmark Atlases are great paper-based maps for finding these lands in the Western U.S., but if you have a smartphone or tablet, an even better tool is this great little mapping app called US Public Lands from my friends Cherie and Chris of Technomadia (this post tells how they use this handy little app to find free camping on public lands).  
  • Buy (or earn) an America The Beautiful Federal Lands Pass.  I'll be getting a Federal Volunteer Pass when I leave Bosque as thanks for my contribution of over 250 volunteer hours.  This pass (like the paid $80 Interagency Pass, Senior Pass, and others) gets the pass holder and their car's occupants into any National Park, Wildlife Refuge, National Forest, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, or Army Corps of Engineers park for free.
  • Buy a $25 Federal Duck Stamp.  Waterfowl hunters are required to buy these annual conservation stamps, but other supporters of National Wildlife Refuges should consider buying them too.  Why?  Because 98% of all Duck Stamp proceeds go directly back to the local National Wildlife Refuge to support its waterfowl conservation efforts and fund new land purchases.
  • Volunteer!  There are excellent "resident volunteer" opportunities for those of us with RVs and some free time on our hands.  Many NWRs and other parks will provide a free campsite in exchange for a few hours of work each week.  If you're not a traveling RVer, there are local volunteer opportunities as well.  Check out Volunteer.gov or the website of the park you're interested in.  If an opportunity is not posted, email or call the park to inquire.  Some volunteers have gotten their jobs simply by proposing their idea to the land manager, so it never hurts to ask!
  • Join a NWR Friends Organization.  Here's a look-up tool to find NWR Friends Groups.  If you love and care about a particular Refuge, join their Friends organization to meet other like-minded individuals and show your support!  Friends groups help their Refuges in many different ways-- via volunteer people-power to supplement limited NWR staff, funding of capital improvement projects, and coordination with local organizations and businesses to promote Refuge-focused tourism and conservation.
  • Sign up for Email Action Alerts from the NWRA.  The National Wildlife Refuge Association helps rally NWR Friends and others to advocate on behalf of issues that affect NWRs in Washington.  Additionally, the NWRA also sponsors an annual NWR photo contest, and annual recognition awards to outstanding NWR employees and volunteers.
  • Follow your favorite NWRs (and other public lands groups) on Facebook or Twitter.  Share their cool photos and stories with your friends throughout the year to help raise public awareness, visitation, and advocacy support.
  • VOTE and hold your elected Federal officials accountable!  When an armed attack towards a public land (and their employees/volunteers) goes unpunished, it jeopardizes the security of ALL of our public lands, as well as the ability of our Federal rangers and volunteers to fully perform their duties as public land stewards.  It is up to each of us to send those emails and make those phone calls to hold our elected officials accountable. We must pressure them to fully enforce our Federal Lands laws, and prevent the passage of new laws that could diminish or eliminate our public lands.
Free Camping on Bureau of Reclamation public lands, Nevada, 2014

"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of urban and industrial waste." 
- Wallace StegnerWriter & Historian

When we humans spend too much time living in our artificially-controlled, constant 72-degree environments, surrounded only by other humans and electronic screens, we tend to build more grandiose illusions of our power and significance in the world.

But strip away the modern conveniences, get out into nature, and lock eyes with a wild creature or two, and one instantly understands his or her's true position in the Universe's grand scheme of things-- we're no bigger or more important than any other living creature.  We all occupy this Earth for a mere blink of an eye, and must rely on one another for our mutual survival.  Natural places are critical to continuously remind us of this.

So please join me this year to hug a Wildlife Refuge, hike and sleep in a Forest, and paddle a Lake!  Let's explore (and work hard to protect) our public lands for ourselves and our children.







32 comments:

  1. Wow, I didn't realize there are that many wildlife refuges. I agree with you and hope that a resolution is worked out for everyone, including those of us who visit or plan on visiting our lands set aside for us and the wildlife, for us to get to know our land and how it intertwines with life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think the official number is now 564 but it keeps growing :-) If you've not been to New Mexico's newest NWR yet (Valle del Oro near Albuquerque), visit their website and put that on your list!

      Delete
  2. It's ridiculous what they are doing and even more so that it has not been stopped. States will exploit lands if turned over to them, they don't have the revenue to continue to operate at the current level. It also makes me wonder about when we are boondocking on public lands will hoodlums on ATV's with GUNS threaten us?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I doubt they'd visit our boondocking RVs unless we happen to have a CNN crew parked next to us! These clowns just want media attention, and the brainless corporate cable and broadcast TV stations seem to just put a camera on anyone and anything these days without any effort to provide objective journalism. Thank goodness for Google News searches so we can assess multiple news reports and try and piece together the true facts of these stories.

      Delete
  3. Excellent post and thank you for writing it. I've read a couple of articles about the vandalism and destruction occurring at Malheur today, both authors wondering what does it take to get law enforcement to move in and put a stop to this. If the wretched media would stop covering this event, maybe they would all go home.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It makes me want to scream that no charges have even yet to be brought against the Bundys for their 2014 armed incident in Nevada against the BLM. From what I understand, Cliven Bundy's cattle are STILL grazing on BLM land there and he still has not paid the ridiculously low grazing fees. Perhaps if BLM sold that land to a private party, Bundy would see his cows evicted, grazing fees get way jacked up by the new commercial landlord, and he'd wish for the good old days of leasing BLM land again!

      I do hope the FBI starts taking some measures soon to bring the Malheur situation to a close. I loved one internet guy's idea-- when the occupiers were begging for snacks to be mailed to them, he suggested the FBI send them boxes of Ding Dongs laced with heavy tranquilizers. Once the bozos were asleep, the Feds could easily come in, handcuff them, and whisk them off to jail!

      Delete
  4. All the public lands designed for public use is among the best decisions the Feds have ever made!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed, but I'm sure it wasn't all that clean and easy a process even back then-- likely lots of public pressure and backroom deals finally got us those lands.

      Delete
    2. And unfortunately it was taken away from Tribes in some cases...

      Delete
  5. Wonderful post! We've been concerned about this issue for awhile now. It is scary to think of the loss of access on Western public lands. We have to keep vocal with Congress on this issue. Thank you for shedding light on this for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome-- hopefully the more of us with blogs who publicize these issues, the more it will help!

      Delete
  6. Wow. To date, I hadn't given the situation in Oregon a whole lot of thought. Thank you for writing this piece to give perspective to why I should care about it more. Hope to run into you at one of the NWR locations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Visiting NWRs is always interesting and fun-- hope to see you there!

      Delete
  7. What a well written post! Being from the southeast, BLM was a new term for us when we began our travels. Who knew such wide open spaces exsisted. We look forward to volunteering opportunities at a variety of places. Thanks again for all the shared links.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, BLM was new to me too when I first started... And Bureau of Reclamation too, but both have lots of great camping lands!

      Delete
  8. Wow, thanks for this great post. While I knew some of what you discussed an amazing amount (way to much) was new for me. Would you mind if I linked this to our next blog post?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Please Share! The more of us land-lovers that get out and support & defend our lands, the better!

      Delete
  9. Fantastic post Lynne. You bring everything out to the front for all to read and see. This post will help many people that had no idea what is happening not only at Malheur but throughout the US system that has to work around financial cutbacks. If you don't mind I'd like to link this post in my next blog post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Steve. Yes, please share far and wide!

      Delete
  10. Great post! I sure can feel your passion...and that picture of the small RV on the vast landscape...is breathtaking!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That little bitty RV is mine! I've enjoyed only a couple stellar boondocking locations like that over the years-- most others are a lot more crowded. Every day I spent at that site in Nevada I marveled at the wisdom of our ancestors for setting aside this land for all people to enjoy. I hope it stays that way for many years to come!

      Delete
  11. Very good post... I was truly amazed at the map and that all of this is really a Western issue, not much land in the eastern parts of the states. And Texas is nearly devoid of federal land, how did that happen in that wild open space? Bet there is a story there!! Don't know the answer here, but can see where a show of force is hard to stomach in this situation, altho the Bundy characters don't seem to mind and have been emboldened by lack of response in the government area. A sad state.... but many kudos to you and those you know for volunteering!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yes, a very sad state, but I'm still trusting that the FBI's method will still ultimately bring justice to discourage other crackpot groups from grabbing public lands themselves.

      Delete
  12. Lynn, so glad to see your post..I was getting worried about you. Thanks for a great post with invaluable information. Count me in...I have added your list of suggestions to my list of personal growth goals. I had communicated with you last year, I live in Hillsboro, IL and I know you had done some work here. I will have to start with visiting the areas that are somewhat local but as you suggested, there is lot of other things we can do as well. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution...thanks again for your time and effort putting this post together...take care.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. you're welcome! Yes, plenty of help for our public lands can come from just online support if traveling is not currently possible.

      Delete
  13. Goodness what a thing to happen. We're English and always enjoy visiting BLM lands, National Parks & Monuments and other US public areas,when we're in the USA. We visited Bosque at couple of years ago and loved it. We hope the situation at Malheur gets resolved soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's amazing how many foreign visitors come to see & support public lands in the U.S. If only we could share your enthusiasm to encourage more voting Americans to do the same, our politicians wouldn't dare propose some of the things they've recently been trying to pass!

      Delete
  14. What an informative posting! It inspired me to act and I bought a national parks pass and donated to a local NWR. Thanks for the useful links that made it easy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How FANTASTIC!!!! Hope you enjoy many wonderful visits this year!

      Delete
  15. I'm late in reading this (don't always have good signal as we travel), but want to thank you for this great post. I think we'll visit at least one NWR on our way north in March.

    ReplyDelete

Share Your Views!

Shop Amazon With Us

Gear We Love

Join Us On Facebook