These photos show why the land currently occupied by armed ranchers is protected.

It's been four days since a group of armed men took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Jan. 2, 2016.

Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed occupiers at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by George Frey/Getty Images News.


Ostensibly, their cause is defending two ranchers who were sentenced to prison for burning 130 acres of the refuge, calling the conviction a governmental interference on the "people's constitutional rights."

Coverage of the standoff has mostly focused on the fact that these men have guns, that they're anti-government, that Ammon Bundy's father Cliven was in a similar standoff last year, that people are calling the group #yallqaeda, and that a group of armed #BlackLivesMatter protesters taking over a government building certainly wouldn't be called "peaceful." Given our national current preoccupation with mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and anti-government presidential candidates, this coverage is understandable.

But it's worth looking at what's really at stake here.

With all the attention on the armed ranchers, few people are talking about the birds and other creatures that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge protects.

"When you look at migratory birds and how they use the landscape, Malheur National Wildlife is critically important," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland, which promotes education and conservation around bird populations at refuges like Malheur.

A burrowing owl at the Malheur National Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Candace Larson/Audubon Society of Portland, used with permission.

According to Sallinger, Malheur is home to the largest sandhill crane population of any refuge in the western United States.

20,000 white-faced ibises — 20% of the world's white-faced ibis population — live there as do 4,000 white pelicans and 7,000 grebes among hundreds of thousands migrating waterfowl and tens of thousands of shore birds.

For these birds, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an essential stop along their migratory journey.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is home to thousands of grebes like this horned one. Photo by Candace Larson/Audubon Society of Portland, used with permission.

In fact, Sallinger calls Malheur the "crown jewel" of the United States' wildlife refuge system.

Malheur is one of the first wildlife refuges in the western United States, created by President Theodore Roosevelt after Audubon Society founder William Finley persuaded him to set aside the land by showing him breathtaking photos of the habitat's bird population.

Many of the bird photos interspersed in this article were taken by Finley in 1908, the year that Roosevelt created Malheur.

Photos like this one of a great horned owl:

The great horned owl is one of many species of birds threatened by the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

And this photo of a lone white-faced ibis:

Portland Audubon Society founder William Finley's 1908 photo of a white-faced ibis at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

And this glorious photo of a pod of American white pelicans:

Malheur National Wildlife refuge is an essential stop along many bird populations' migratory journey, including that of the American white pelican. Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

And this hand-painted glass slide of a northern pintail:

Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

As well as this delicate yellow-headed blackbird:


Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

And this handsome mallard:

Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

It's thanks to Roosevelt setting a precedent for creating protective refuges like Malheur that America retains so much of its wildlife — fowl and fauna and mammalian and reptilian alike.

Sallinger says he doesn't know if the armed occupation will cause immediate harm to the animals on the refuge, but he is worried about the long term impact.

"[The armed ranchers' occupation will] take very thin resources and stretch them even thinner now," Sallinger says. The refuge has a tight schedule and very limited staffing resources to get all the restoration, monitoring, and management tasks that they need to get done during the year.


Malheur Lake bird nest. Photo by William Finley and Herman Bolhman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

This includes monitoring where various bird populations nest, the effect their management strategies have on the birds, and cutting-edge techniques to get rid of an invasive carp species in Malheur Lake to allow more birds to breed there. So far, these invasive carp have eaten everything in sight in the lake and have stirred up so much sediment that sunlight can't get through to create essential food sources and allow habitat features to grow back.

Any delay in this work makes Malheur employees' jobs harder and could mean long-term harm to the wildlife in the refuge.

The occupation could also undermine the amount of work environmental groups have done to involve the community in protecting wildlife.

In 2013, the refuge brought together a coalition committed to Malheur's restoration.

Sallinger says that when he talks about shining examples of collaborative projects, he talks about Malheur first.

The coalition behind the Malheur Wildlife National Refuge wants to restore Malheur Lake as a viable habitat for the various bird populations that frequent it. Photo by William Finley and Herman Bohlman/Audubon Society of Portland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

As a result, it makes him sad that the Malheur occupiers are trying to portray the relationship between the refuge and the surrounding community as one of conflict.

"The truth there is that the refuge has been working very diligently to include the community," he says.

In fact, bird watchers at the Daily Kos have a message from the bird-watching community for those who have engaged in poaching and other harmful activities around various wildlife refuges, writing:

"Malheur, Hart Mountain, Klamath Marsh, Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite etc etc, they all belong to us, we the American people, and no small group of armed thugs is going to destroy the great wildlife and national park system that our great Republican President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir put in place over a century ago."

The ranchers claims to be working in the interest of the people, but it's worth noting the people don't want them there.

In its press release, the Portland Audubon Society highlights this fact (emphasis added):

"The occupation of Malheur by armed, out of state militia groups puts one of America’s most important wildlife refuges at risk. It violates the most basic principles of the Public Trust Doctrine and holds hostage public lands and public resources to serve the very narrow political agenda of the occupiers. The occupiers have used the flimsiest of pretexts to justify their actions—the conviction of two local ranchers in a case involving arson and poaching on public lands. Notably, neither the local community or the individuals convicted have requested or endorsed the occupation or the assistance of militia groups."

Occupation leader Ammon Bundy told CNN that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is "destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area." But what these anti-government protesters who seek to make federally protected lands available for hunters, farmers, and anyone who wishes to claim them forget is that wildlife refuges exist to protect the environment not only for wildlife, but for people as well.

It's thanks to national wildlife refuges that we have clean water and clean air.

On Tuesday, Jan. 6, the third day of the occupation, it was reported that the people of the nearby community of Burns, Oregon, were hoping that the uninvited, armed occupiers will leave. They don't want them there, and the two ranchers who were convicted of arson don't want them there either.

For the sake of the animals on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and for the people who help them, let's hope so.

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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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