Jewell: Oregon Refuge Takeover Among Several Threats to West

Duane Ehmer carries an American flag as he rides his horse, Hellboy, at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 15, 2016, near Burns, Oregon.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Washington (AP) -- Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday called for "a major course correction" in the way the nation conserves its public lands, waters and wildlife, saying climate change and other trends threaten natural areas "in existential ways."

In a major policy speech, Jewell called climate change one of several threats facing public lands and water, including an "extreme movement" by armed groups to seize them; a push by some politicians to sell them to the highest bidder; and increased development nearby.

"Climate change — the most pressing issue of our time — threatens our land and water in existential ways, with longer, hotter fire seasons, record-breaking droughts and more frequent and severe superstorms," Jewell said.

Citing a new analysis by a nonprofit conservation and scientific 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 also denounced an armed takeover of an Oregon national wildlife refuge.

The 41-day standoff this winter "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," said Jewell, who began her fourth year as Interior secretary this month.

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.

"If we stay on this trajectory, 100 years from now, national parks and wildlife refuges will be like postage stamps of nature on a map," she said, offering a bleak vision in which "isolated islands of conservation with run-down facilities" will be visited by crowds akin to those who now go to zoos "to catch a glimpse of our nation's remaining wildlife and undeveloped patches of land."

That can't — and won't — happen, Jewell said, if America acts now.

"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 "underrepresented communities."

"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."

Officials also need to ensure that when a diverse class of fourth-graders does visit a national park, "they see park rangers who look like them, or talk to wildlife biologists who share their background. Or see signs in their first language," Jewell said.

National parks for too long "have ignored important parts of our nation's story," Jewell said, calling for more parks and historic sites focused on women, minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.

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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