Is the west still wild?

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Birds take flight at Malheur Lake.
Birds take flight at Malheur Lake.

If you were to judge Oregon based on the fact that a bunch of angry militants took over a wildlife refuge demanding the government return the land to the people, well, I wouldn’t blame you.

Of course I’ve been following this.

Over the last six months, I’ve become incredibly fascinated with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the ill-fated scene of the hostile (silly) takeover.


It was the first waterfowl sanctuary created west of the Mississippi. It was created, in the most simplified way I know how to explain this, when one William L Finley took photographs of the birds there and traveled to Washington D.C., where he showed them to Theodore Roosevelt, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Well, bully, let’s create a bird sanctuary for the protection of native birds.” Or something similar.

What you might not know is that there was a chicken egg shortage on the west coast in those days, and people, desperate for their eggs, as we tend to get, were raiding the nests of wild birds and wiping out native populations all over the countryside.

As a large breeding area for migrating birds, Malheur would have been prime raiding for egg-lusty people from San Francisco to Seattle.

Mr. Finley, had, a few years earlier, traveled to the Oregon Coast, where he saw men clubbing sea lions all morning and shooting seabirds all afternoon. It was this that convinced the president to actually declare the very first wildlife refuge west of the Mississippi at Three Arch Rocks.

And it’s this that sort of defines this whole thing for me.

When the west was truly wild, when manifest destiny gripped mens’ souls like a fever or a JC Penny catalogue during puberty, the vast balance of pristine, virgin natural resources swung like a pendulum being thrown against a wall.

Species went extinct so fast they could barely be collected by the burgeoning museums in the east. Stories of their grandeur or ferocity  were already myth by the time they made their way slowly from the wilds of the west to the population centers of the east.

The very next generation of Conestoga immigrants would never set their eyes on species so prevalent they once covered the plains or numbered in the millions or darkened the skies.

Unfettered romantic notions of empire embedded within each western arrival combined with such a vast and endless pot of gold held up on a web of key species, habitat, climate and inter-reliance that wouldn’t even begin to be understood by scientists for a hundred years more.

It was all free for the taking, with each man, woman or child playing king, queen and prince or princess of all the domain they could survey.

They made their own laws, observed their own science, each unto his or her own interpretation. Some more or less effectively than others.

Some grew wealthy, but most became feeders funneling the wealth to the already wealthy, and in this way, the resources of the west were sucked dry like the teet of a once-prosperous cow.

O.K., that’s hyperbole.

But I want to illustrate how the west was romanticized to the point of creating the kind of fiction that drives people to take over wildlife refuges demanding they be returned to the people.

Without, I might add, acknowledging the original people who occupied the land and who were removed to better process the resources at hand.

The free market should, in theory, benefit from natural controls that can protect and sustain resources.

Unfortunately, human greed is largely undefinable and almost never calculated into the equations that drive the economy, which so often results in gross mismanagement of everything from education to food production to pronghorn antelope.

Is the west still wild?

Judging by the Bundys and their buddies camped out in the cold comfort of a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I’d say the romantic notion of a wild west still exists in the hearts and minds of the wannabe emperors whose dreams died when manifest destiny met its fate in the cold and endless waters of the Pacific Ocean, and, of course, the railroad, the telegraph, the highway system, the village, the town, the city, the airplane, the Internet.

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” – Rachel Carson

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