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Malheur Occupation: Who Has A Claim To This Land?


Ammon Bundy said the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds in its original purchase of the land where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stands back in 1908.

Ammon Bundy said the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds in its original purchase of the land where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stands back in 1908.

Amanda Peacher/OPB

On Tuesday Jan. 5, LaVoy Finicum, a spokesperson for the armed occupiers in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, told OPB’s Think Out Loud his group would like to see the federal government return the wetland area property rights to local ranchers.

Nancy Langston disagrees with Finicum’s premise.

Langston, a professor of environmental history at Michigan Technical University and author of “Where Land and Water Meet: Watershed Change in Arid West,” joined Think Out Loud Wednesday to add an academic perspective to this ongoing story. According to Langston, the notion that it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to own land is “simply incorrect.” She called attention to both the Property Clause in the U.S Constitution and “several landmark Supreme Court decisions” that affirm the government’s land-owning rights.

“There’s no question that the 640 million acres of federal public lands are legal and constitutional,” Langston said. “The claim that these wildlife refuges are not legal because somehow they pushed out ranchers back at the turn of the century, I think that’s also incorrect.”

Langston pointed out that President Theodore Roosevelt established the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 1908.

“He established it not on rancher’s lands, not on state’s lands, but rather on federal lands, that had actually been repossessed by the Paiute Tribe,” she said, “so if there’s any group of people in the basin that do have prior claims to the refuge lands, I think the Paiute are the group we need to consider.”

The Burns Paiute Tribe has denounced the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, calling it a “sacred site.”

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