America’s wild and precious open spaces will be under pressure as never before if a Republican President representing the far-Right comes to power this year. The first shots in the war over the future status of the country’s nature reserves and national parks came earlier this year when “patriots” seized a nature reserve in Oregon. Don Knowler, who has just published his book about New York’s most famous open space - The Falconer of Central Park - as an ebook, gives an account of the latest parks-versus-ranchers-conflict.
The conservation movement in the United States reached deep into its armoury to protest over the bloody seizure of a nature refuge in the state of Oregon by gun-toting ranchers and their backers. But instead of reacting with outrage and anger, the conservations armed themselves with humour.
And the butt of the jokes in a satirical birding blog were not the armed militia but the birdwatchers themselves, denied access to their precious reserve.
Wryly setting out the scene for a confrontation, the online post from the other side of the country, in Pennsylvania, noted the Oregon sub-species of birdwatcher possessed a number of advantages when it came to combat in open, sagebrush terrain.
“They are masters of disguise who know how to blend into the outdoor environment, whereas the enemy, with their pickups, massive guns, and loud obnoxious personalities, tend to stick out like a sore thumb.”
At a time when the gun culture of the United States was very much in the news in the first few weeks of 2016, reducing President Barak Obama to tears, the birders were reported somewhat tongue-in-cheek to be planning to retake the Malheur reserve in a dawn offensive.
“The Malheur sanctuary is home to approximately 320 avian species beloved by birders. BIG mistake,” said the blog. “The assault rifles and armoured vests of the ‘patriots’ will be of little protection against their ornithological foe. Before you even know what’s happened they sneak up behind you and clobber you with a sturdy walking cane or large-calibre spotting scope.”
The self-styled Active Patriot Group had taken over the reserve – established more than 100 years ago to protect migrating birds along what is know as the Pacific flyway – in protest over the vast tracks of land in the United States under the control of the federal wildlife authorities. In the latest flare-up of what has become known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion”, the gunmen were supporting two Oregon ranchers accused of setting a grassfire which spread to the reserve.
The exact circumstances surrounding the fire – the ranchers were jailed for arson – might remain unclear but the ranchers had long sought to run their beef cattle, and hunt, in the refuge. The men arriving to take control of the refuge and its headquarters were not local men, but anti-government activists from other parts of the country.
The FBI kept its distance at first but then arrested the ring-leaders of the take-over when they left the reserve to address local residents. In an ensuring gunfight, one of the activists was shot dead.
The takeover by the group might have been labelled “armed sedition” in some quarters, with the US government urged to consider the gunmen terrorists, but others took the matter more lightly, despite the eventual loss of life.
The armed men were mocked for sending out for pizzas and their general ill-preparedness for the brutality of the Oregon winter. They requested socks be sent to them via a federal agency, the US Postal Service, an irony in itself considering they are supposed to be mounting an anti-government protest. In one twitter post the group was described as “Vanilla ISIS”.
The government, and the birders wanting to gain access to the reserve, were prepared to sit it out, mainly because the militants had come across so badly on national television.
The insight on the blog into the wiles and ways of the birdwatchers attracted hundreds of comments, some revealing that birdwatchers made a significant contribution to the US economy.
Said one blogger: “Even though this story is making fun of birders, check this out – there are 22.5 million ‘away-from-home’ wildlife watchers in the US, compared with 13.6 hunters. There are more than 1 million beef producers in the United States. Active Patriot Group members? About 40,000. Birders are more of America than those boys holding court in the birdhouse ¬– by almost two to one. Get out and go home to your ranches and enjoy what you have. This plot of preserve is ours.”
The Malheur refuge was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman who set aside federal property around three Oregon lakes as a place for migratory birds to breed, one of more than 50 such refuges created during his presidency. It is commonly believed that Roosevelt became an ardent conservationist because he came from New York City, a place where the principle of setting aside land for the public is still sacred.
Visitors to New York can bear witness to this fact every spring, as thousands of urban birdwatchers fill New York’s defined green spaces, hoping to get a glimpse of the brightly feathered migrants travelling America’s eastern or Atlantic flyway which settle in the trees on their way north — all this without kicking out the skateboarders and joggers in their midst.
Although Oregon might be a long way from New York’s Central Park, The New York Times entered the debate with an opinion piece that took the activists to task for their stated aim of “reclaiming” American territory for the people. The writer of the article pointed out that the American people already owned the Malheur refuge and others like it.
The United States, of course, is not the only country resisting pressures to open up previously closed areas, be they by ranchers, miners or even people wanting more land for recreational activities. In Tasmania, a similar debate surrounds the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, where loggers want access to exploit the south-west’s speciality timbers and tourism operators seek a lifting of controls on development.
The sense of humour that has been adopted by the conservationists in America might serve to defuse hostilities here.
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*Don Knowler writes the “On the Wing” birdwatching column for the Mercury, which allows him to combine the two great passions of his life, wildlife and journalism. He came to live in Tasmania with his Tasmanian-born wife and son after a lengthy career as a reporter in his home country of Britain, before working as a correspondent in Africa and North America. Knowler is the author of two other books along with The Falconer of Central Park, which is now available as an ebook on Amazon kindle after originally being published by Bantam America in 1982. The others are Dancing on the Edge of the World, a collection of essays based on his writing in the Mercury which was short-listed for the Tasmanian literary prize in 2005 and Riding the Devil’s Highway, highlighting the issue of roadkill in Tasmania and its impact on threatened fauna. The link for Knowler’s ebook is: http://www.amazon.com/Falconer-Central-Park-Donald-Knowler-ebook/dp/B01D0QU1E0/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1458696709&sr=1-1