10/28/2016 05:57 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Malheur Verdict: A Bird of Ill Omen for America's Public Lands

Unbelievable. Shocked. Stunned. Deeply Disappointed. These were my thoughts and emotions as I learned that an Oregon jury returned the verdict of "not guilty" on all serious charges for seven of the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

But deep concern quickly crept in as I thought about the implications for government employees who dedicate their lives to managing our wildlife refuges, national parks and other public lands.

This very unfortunate verdict is already being viewed as a rallying cry for an increasingly vocal, dangerous minority who challenge the federal government's role in managing our public lands for multiple benefits for all Americans. They seek instead to claim our lands and resources as their own. They are just plain wrong.

We have a long history in this country of recognizing that public lands provide Americans with clean air and clean water, wildlife habitat, open space and recreation. That's why Congress passed an act in 1872 to establish Yellowstone National Park "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and placed it "under the exclusive control of the Secretary of Interior." This began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.

Less well known than parks and forests, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation--and the largest system of its kind in the world. The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

President Teddy Roosevelt established the first refuge in 1903 to protect birds from market hunting on a small island in Florida. Just five years later, President Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon to protect habitat for diverse waterfowl and migratory birds, eventually covering 187,757 acres of public land. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a birdwatcher's paradise, an oasis of wetlands in the high desert of Oregon that is home to more than 320 bird species, including great blue herons and Sandhill cranes.

The National Wildlife Refuge System has since grown to more than 560 refuges, covering hundreds of millions of acres of land and waters in all 50 states, every U.S. territory and the western Pacific Ocean, providing essential habitat for America's astounding diversity of wildlife. In addition to serving a vital role in conservation, the National Wildlife Refuge System supports innumerable recreational opportunities and generates billions of dollars in local, sustainable economic activity.

In a time of extreme climate change and rapid habitat destruction, our National Wildlife Refuge System and other public lands will play an increasingly important role in providing habitat to imperiled wildlife. Moreover, visionary thinking is needed around connecting our key public lands and creating wildlife corridors to help wildlife adapt to changing climates. This verdict threatens to distract from this important work, and in fact, some in Congress may be emboldened by the outcome.

In 2016 alone, national wildlife refuges have faced attacks from all sides: a militant takeover, innumerable legislative attacks and now a damaging court verdict. Already this year we have fought off numerous attempts to unravel protections for national wildlife refuges across the nation and its territories - from Vieques in Puerto Rico to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, to efforts in Alaska to undermine the conservation of bears and wolves on national wildlife refuges, the battles seem to be fast and furious and fueled by special interest agendas.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is strongly supported by the majority of Americans. A 2016 poll asked voters about efforts to turn national public lands owned by all Americans over to state or private control. In total, 58 percent of respondents oppose giving state governments control over national public lands, a majority which is consistent across all Western states.

We need to keep public lands in public hands, and armed militants should be held accountable and punished for threatening our natural heritage and the people who protect and manage these lands.