Happy as we are with our 240,000-acre, multi-use Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, we can empathize with the people in Oregon who have a similar affection for the 187,000- acre Malheur Refuge occupied recently by armed protesters.

U.S. wildlife refuges have performed their conservation function as President Teddy Roosevelt envisioned since he established them early in the 20th century, 1908 for Malheur and 1924 for the Upper Miss. That is providing public access for “we the people” and habitat protection for the creatures we admire and value. The refuges have become an important asset for the communities near them.

If the protesters’ aim is to restore to the people what is rightfully theirs, then we have a suggestion for them.

Since what they are occupying is already owned and managed by “we the people” through our government that, in our notion of democracy, is us, they should move on to where their protest might actually do some good.

The cause I have in mind is to return to “we the people” a fair price for the resources that we all own and manage through our government’s Bureau of Land Management.

So saddle up, boys and head for the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the source of 90 percent of the coal being produced from federal lands and 43 percent of total U.S. coal production. That’s where the federal government is subsidizing big coal companies by selling the people’s coal below the fair-market price, according to many studies.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said “as a result of policy choices and an inherently subjective and flawed fair market value appraisal process, the U.S. Treasury has lost almost $30 billion in revenue throughout the past 30 years.”

According to the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank focusing on Northwest U.S. issues, low-cost federal coal is being bought at low prices and resold for much higher, “at a significant loss to taxpayers.” The Sightline report cited an example of Cloud Peak energy purchasing coal for $0.11 and $0.18 per ton and selling “much of this coal abroad for more than $60 per ton.”

So, while the administration pushing for reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. energy production, is at the same time subsidizing emissions elsewhere in the world.

At a BLM hearing last August, Todd Brown, a council member for the town of Telluride, Colorado, supported efforts to reform and modernize the Federal Coal Program. He cited concerns of his and other mountain communities that are at risk due to climate change:

“Symptoms of climate change, including wildfires, reduced snowpack, higher temperatures are getting worse each year, and the financial cost of responding to these threats is rising,” Brown said. “Now is the time for the federal government to ensure that a fair return on coal is collected and to invest those resources in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.”

According to the Center for American Progress, roughly 90 percent of all federal coal leasing sales since 1990 have had only one bidder. The center cites Carbon Tracker figures that companies mining Powder River Basin coal receive an effective subsidy of $2.59 per metric ton, thus shortchanging “we the people.”

So the Oregon protesters could do us all a big favor by moving their right to protest to another venue where there’s really something to make a fuss about. But they should leave their guns at home. American history is replete with unfortunate outcomes in protests against Big Coal that turned violent.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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