Garrett Vene Klasen has Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday in his calendar. He receives annual alerts for Teddy’s special day just like he does for his daughter’s birthday.
“If you’re an outdoors person, Roosevelt should be a central figure in your life,” says Vene Klasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation executive director. “He created our lifestyle.”
Teddy’s birthday alert hit Vene Klasen’s phone October 27. Right day. Terrible timing. The expected notice arrived just as an unexpected verdict came out of Oregon. All seven people charged in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were found not guilty.
“We would not have all these public lands today if it wasn’t for Roosevelt,” he says. “That’s what makes it even more offensive.”
The offense he’s referring to started January 2 when a clan of occupiers, including Ammon Bundy, took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They claimed to be standing up for rancher’s rights, but said rancher didn’t want their support. They wanted federal land turned over to the county, but said county wasn’t rolling out the welcome wagon for them.
“I know that common people have been kicked out of here,” Duane Ehmer, standoff supporter on horseback told me when I arrived at Malheur January 11. “We’re standing up for our neighbors that ain’t got no voice in this community.”
Their stand, while visibly backed by firing power, was awkward in its delivery. The awkwardness amped up as the fog rolled in literally and figuratively. The weathered air was so thick when I was at Malheur that my lens had a hard time focusing on the few subjects I could see for my story: the frost-covered cattle, the frozen watchtower. The weather matched the situation. Foggy. I couldn’t clear the air with concise answers no matter how I phrased my questions.
Vene Klasen had the same problem. He traveled from New Mexico to Oregon in January to oppose the takeover in person. His face-to-face with a flag bearing Bundy supporter on horseback didn’t gleam results. Neither did Mark Heckert’s cardboard sign reading ‘Get the flock outta my wildlife refuge.’
“Part of the legacy that I hope to leave to my children are these lands and I see that going away,” says Heckert, a sportsmen from Washington. “So I gotta fight where I can and talk where I have to.”
Sportsmen made their presence known if for no other reason than to make sure the occupiers knew the whole nation didn’t support their public lands takeover. Weeks passed. The drama waned. Eventually, the Bundys weren’t allowed to squat on the refuge anymore and arrests were made. As expected, charges mounted. Regardless of their less than concise reasons for taking over Malheur, they were in trouble with the law.
And then they weren’t.
“My client was arrested in a government truck and he was acquitted of taking that truck,” Matthew Schindler, attorney for defendant Kenneth Medenbach told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s extraordinary, completely unprecedented, without a doubt the biggest loss for the federal government in the District of Oregon, ever.”
Medenbach and six other defendants were found not guilty in federal court October 27. Not guilty. Don’t glass over the ‘not’ because it’s the bombshell here.
“We are profoundly disappointed,” says Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president and CEO. “The jury’s decision flies in the face of the basic principal that America’s national wildlife refuges and other public lands belong to all Americans.”
If the reasons for ransacking a refuge seem confusing, imagine the brain twist behind letting the ransackers off the hook. Vene Klasen is dumbfounded.
“They broke so many laws. I don’t get it,” he says. “Those people belong in prison for a long time. They’re domestic terrorists. So many things could have and should have stuck.”
But they didn’t stick so when Vene Klasen’s phone alerted him of Roosevelt’s birthday while he was trying to sort out Malheur’s surprise verdict, he was beside himself. Roosevelt, the poster boy for public lands, was having the date of his birth violated.
“That kind of verdict on Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday? God rest his soul,” Vene Klasen says. “It’s such a fuck you to Teddy.”