Jewell: Oregon takeover among several threats to West

WASHINGTON — An armed takeover of an Oregon national wildlife refuge is part of a disturbing “extreme movement” to seize public lands and reject the rule of law — putting communities and public employees at risk throughout the West, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says in a speech outlining Obama administration conservation policies.

The 41-day standoff this winter came at the same time as two other trends that threaten the West, Jewell said: A push by some politicians to sell off lands that belong to all Americans to the highest bidder, and the rapid disappearance of natural areas throughout the region due to climate change and increased development.

Citing a new analysis by a non-profit conservation group, Jewell said natural areas in the West are disappearing at the rate of a football field every two-and-a-half minutes. The trend is especially alarming “because healthy, intact ecosystems are fundamental to the health of our nation,” she said.

Jewell, who began her fourth year as Interior secretary this month, is set to deliver the speech Tuesday at the National Geographic Society in Washington. The Associated Press obtained excerpts in advance.

The convergence of trends threatening the West has “propped up dangerous voices that reject the rule of law, put communities and hard-working public servants at risk, and fail to appreciate how deeply democratic and American our national parks and public lands are,” Jewell said.

More than two dozen armed occupiers took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in January, demanding that the government turn over the land to locals and release two ranchers imprisoned for setting fires. The standoff left one man dead and exposed simmering anger over the government’s control of vast expanses of Western land.

At least 25 people have been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to impede employees at the wildlife refuge from performing their duties.

The takeover followed an armed confrontation with government agents two years ago by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and at least 18 other people. Bundy’s son Ammon Bundy led the Oregon standoff.

Besides rejecting the demands of extremists, officials must address the dual threats of climate change and development, Jewell said, noting that her speech comes as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary.

“This country’s national parks, forests, refuges and public lands are some of the most valuable assets that we collectively own,” she said. “At a time when they face threats from land grabs to climate change, we can’t afford to turn our backs on them. Let us use this special year of the (Park Service) centennial to set a new path for conservation in the 21st century.”

On other topics, Jewell said the Park Service and other agencies need to do a better job reaching out to “under-represented communities,” including women, young people and minorities.

“The majority of visitors to national parks today look like me: older and whiter,” Jewell said. “We need to kick off the new century of American conservation by issuing a giant, open invitation to every American to visit their national parks and public lands.”

Jewell said she will kick off the effort herself, traveling to parks and other sites this summer on what aides call a “conservation road tour” from coast to coast.

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Follow Matthew Daly at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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