Federal Government Balks at Enforcing Land-Use Law When Confronted by Armed Right-Wing Vigilantes

Posted May 14, 2014

MP3 Interview with Daniel Patterson, Southwest regional director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Two recent highly publicized cases of Western ranchers and recreationists defying federal land use regulations with armed supporters, have raised concerns about when applicable laws will be upheld and when they will be ignored. Federal officials working for government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, are unable to carry out their duties safely when challenged by armed resistors.

Vast areas of all western states – including 62 percent of Alaska, and 47 percent of the other 11 western states – are owned by the U.S. government, which is to say American taxpayers. The first recent incident took place in Nevada with rancher Cliven Bundy who has resisted paying cattle grazing fees for 20 years, the second occurred soon after in Utah, where dozens of people rode All Terrain Vehicles or ATVs and motorcycles in an area off-limits to motorized vehicles, that is also a native American burial ground. Bundy lost his hero status on the right when he made several racist statements.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and Southwest regional director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group is a private, non-profit organization founded in 1996 in response to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, which swept across the West in the 1980s, when activists challenged the federal government's control over public lands. Working behind the scenes, the group advises front-line public employees, to expose and resolve problems they encounter as they try to carry out their duties. Here, Patterson explains why he is concerned about the federal government’s apparent unwillingness to enforce the law when challenged by a band of armed right-wing vigilantes.

DANIEL PATTERSON: Well, Cliven Bundy for 20 years has refused to pay his grazing fees. It's somewhat interesting because grazing fees are incredibly cheap and highly subsidized – $1.35 a month for a cow and a calf to eat as much forage as it wants off your public lands. So good luck even feeding a pet hamster for that amount. But really the biggest problem there in a lot of ways is the failure of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to do much of anything about it for 20 years. They finally moved to impound his livestock. Keep in mind this is part of the Mojave Desert that's not at all suited for livestock grazing; they do a lot of damage to the fragile desert environment and to desert wildlife especially. So BLM moved in to impound about 500 head of cattle that had been illegally degrading habitat at a place called Gold Butte, Nev. And in the middle of that, Cliven Bundy – who already had several court judgments against him, refused to pay his grazing fees, etc. – so the legal issues are very clear. I mean this guy has nothing to stand on when it comes to the law. But BLM called off the roundup because militia types were showing up from other states, from other places. There were some threats of violence, although within the BLM itself there was some disappointment that some decisions were being made at maybe a higher management level, maybe even a Washington level, that didn't provide the kind of backup that was necessary to the rangers that were on the ground.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you think the government's response – or lack of response – to the Bundy incident encouraged folks to defy the government again?

DANIEL PATTERSON: Yes, the second incident was in Utah – a place called Recapture Canyon – that was closed to off-road vehicle use by the Bush administration. The situation there was so bad – the illegal off-road vehicle use was so damaging to this very fragile place that the Bush administration closed it in 2007. There are some local people there, including one county commissioner, who said, "We want to drive our ATVs there anyway. We don't care what the law says." They'd been planning this for awhile, but that illegal action kind of gained momentum when the BLM walked away from doing anything in southern Nevada about Cliven Bundy's illegal cattle. It's a real troubling situation, because if the Department of the Interior is not going to use its law enforcement to actually uphold U.S. law for conservation of our natural resources, then who is?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Don't you represent some employees who work for BLM and was there legitimate concern about their safety and well being? Sounds like you don't think it was legitimate.

DANIEL PATTERSON: It's not that it's not legitimate, but it's also not that it can't be stopped, or checked. That's the concern that PEER, when we hear from BLM employees – and keep in mind they've got to live in a lot of these small towns – they don't feel like they've got any backing from the D.C. level and that these guys just kind of play politics and any time something gets politically dicey, they get left out to hang. It'll probably keep happening until there's a willingness to actually take these guys on – to uphold the law, that's their job.

For more perspectives on the debate over regulation of publicly-owned lands, visit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility at peer.org.

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