The word disturbing comes to mind. Egregious, too.

The decision by a jury to acquit seven of the leaders involved in this past January’s armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge sent shockwaves racing across the internet yesterday—and for good reason. The defendants, five men and two women, had been accused of conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs through intimidation, threat, or force. But somehow, after seeing all the evidence, the jury didn’t seem to think the prosecution had supported its case strong enough. 

A quick refresh: The heavily armed militants, numbering more than two dozen, occupied the refuge’s headquarters for 41 days. Forty-one days. During the standoff, the group put out a call for more people to arm themselves and join the effort. It also issued armed guards to patrol the 300 square miles of sagebrush meadows and river valleys where a menagerie of wildlife, including 320 bird species, occur. In addition to occupying the refuge, the group looted electronics and bulldozed Native American artifacts. By the end, the total damage was estimated at $6 million, one of the insurgents had been killed, and the conflict had involved hundreds of officers from federal, state, and local levels.

Lawyers for the defendants, three of which represented themselves, argued that the state had not successfully proven that the group had engaged in an illegal conspiracy to prevent federal employees—in this case, employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management—from doing their jobs. The evidence seemed abundant: Would you want to go back to your work after it had been cleared at gunpoint by armed insurrectionists? But alas, the jury saw it differently.

What’s most troubling about the verdict, of course, is the message it sends. One of the primary demands by the group was that the government turn over control of Malheur to Harney County, where the refuge is located. The takeover first began in protest of the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers who had been convicted of setting fire to federal lands, and this uprising was a show of strength against what many feel is a federal stranglehold on vast swaths of Western land. 

Here’s the problem with that: While the debate over public and private lands has been an increasingly contentious one, especially in the West, Malheur is actually a poor example of this sort of dispute. As Audubon recently covered in our Summer issue, Malheur exemplifies a new form of cooperation between ranchers and conservationists through the High Desert Partnership program. “It is ironic that they picked Malheur,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director at Portland Audubon. “In a landscape that is very conflicted, it is a place of collaboration.”

The issue is larger than just Malheur. Public lands such as National Wildlife Refuges are vital to wildlife, but they also provide opportunities for people to experience the outdoors in all of its natural beauty, stoking a passion for conservation that can spread throughout communities and even influence the national discourse. So, to show that the federal designation—and, subsequently, protection—of these lands is little more than titular is worrisome. To quote David Yarnold, Audubon’s president and CEO, who released his own statement on the decision, “Wild lands belong to all of us, not the people who hold them at gunpoint.”

The decision by the jury to acquit this group of dissidents says otherwise to would-be vigilantes who think they can take the law into their own hands. Make no mistake: There are valid critiques to be made of the complex patchwork of public and private lands across the West, but during an unruly election season that has been fraught with threats of insurrection and violent rhetoric, a stand against such actions couldn’t have been more important—for the safety of wildlife, the general public, and federal employees. Instead, what the jury issued was a green light. 

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