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How the Bundy Gang Won

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One consequence of the Bundy Gang take-over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in central Oregon has been the abundant media attention to their assertions of government “overreach” and “aggressive enforcement“ of environmental regulations that according to Bundy and Gang has driven ranchers, miners, and loggers from the land. Unfortunately, the media have been slow to counter such assertions.

The reality on the ground is much different from the delusional version put forth by Ammon Bundy and militant associates. Most federal and state agencies are lax in their enforcement of environmental regulations. Though many local people in Harney County, where the Malheur Refuge is located, decry the use of armed intimidation and threats, a sizeable minority or perhaps even majority agrees with the Bundy gang assertions that local people should control management of these public lands.

The irony of such claims is that local people already have a disproportional control and influence on national public lands. They can attend meetings, go on field trips, communicate their views through local media and use their connections with local and higher level politicians to promote their economic and other interests.

If they disapprove of federal management activities, local people often exercise social manipulation against federal administrators. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (FS) managers and staff that live in rural areas. Federal employees, like people everywhere, want to be accepted in their local communities. Any manager or staff who initiates management action that upsets the local people or local business interests like ranchers, miners, or loggers, will quickly find themselves socially isolated, their kids mocked or verbally abused in local schools, and at times employees and/or their families are even subject to physical violence or death threats.

I fear that in the aftermath of the Malheur event, no matter how it is resolved, we will see federal administers even more “cowed” by local hostility to national interests. What BLM or FS manager will be willing to restrict or otherwise control activities that damage public resources if he/she knows that local communities like Burns, Oregon, as well as county, state and sometimes even Congressional members are opposed to the laws or regulations these agencies are supposed to uphold?

Several years ago a friend of mine, who is high up in the BLM, attended a meeting of BLM state directors and district managers convened by Department of Interior lawyers. The purpose of the meeting was to inform the managers that Department of Interior legal teams were losing law suits over and over because they, the people on the ground, were continuously violating the law. The lawyers were young and naïve. They thought, according to my friend, that they were telling these managers something they did not know. The BLM field staff sat stoically, with arms crossed, and listened.

Finally one of them quipped, “Yes, I know I am violating the laws. I do it all the time. You know why? Because if I followed the law I’d have every county commissioner, state legislator, the governor and the state Congressional delegation on my ass–and you know what? You’re not paying me enough to take that kind of abuse.”

Then another BLM manager followed up and said, “I don’t follow the law either. I count on being sued by the environmentalists, so that I can tell the delegation or the loggers or the ranchers that I had no choice in the matter. The court is telling me I must do this.” He went on to acknowledge that unless he was sued and had that political cover, he would not enforce the law.

According to my friend, there were a lot of other people in the room nodding their heads in agreement.

With the recent empowerment of militant groups around the West, particularly militants with guns and other weapons, what rational field manager, especially one living in a small rural community is going to challenge the local “custom and culture?” As one of the field managers said, “You’re not paying me enough.” And indeed, we are not.

If I were a BLM or FS official, I would be loath to challenge a rancher or a miner using public resources. To do so may invite an armed occupation or worse. And those employees know that it’s easier and far less dangerous to simply overlook violations and to avoid enforcement actions, except perhaps in most egregious abuses.

Unless these field managers get strong backing from the highest levels of the administration, we are not likely to see this change. However, instead of standing up to the local bullies, usually, it seems the general policy has been of appeasement.

A good example occurred recently in Nevada when the BLM backed down from throwing Cliven Bundy in jail for failure to pay fines, resisting and interfering with government employees attempting to capture his trespass cattle. Bundy remains a free man, and worse his cattle are still ravaging our public domain.

Even after the Cliven Bundy debacle, the BLM backed down again in another northern Nevada incident. Because of the long drought that has engulfed much of Nevada, the BLM closed some areas to further grazing destruction. Ranchers in the Elko area intimated the local BLM officials. In this they were aided and abetted by Senator Dean Heller and Congressman Mark Amodei who cheered them on. The ranchers even denied there was a drought—though that did not stop them from receiving profligate federal drought disaster relief payments.

In the end the BLM caved. Not only did they reinstate grazing to the detriment of our public lands, but John Ruhs, a cowboy friendly BLM manager who negotiated the reversal in grazing management, was appointed the Nevada state director.

Unfortunately such incidents are not isolated, and such intimidation and accommodation has occurred for years.

In the aftermath of the Malheur stand-off, we will see more capitulation to local control and our public patrimony will suffer accordingly. We may remain the “owners” of these federal lands in name, but the defacto control will shift even more towards local economic and political interests. No matter what legal consequences the Bundy Gang suffers, they have succeeded in advancing their agenda of increasing local control of our public lands.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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